This post should help place the Viennese Coffee-Ground Cards of 1796, forerunners of the Petit Lenormand deck, in the context of the time.
In 1724 eighteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin and his good friend, James Ralph, travel to London, ostensibly to buy printing equipment for Franklin’s first print shop, but instead they hang out at coffee houses, attend the theatre and other entertainments, and read voraciously, with Ralph living off an almost destitute Franklin. Franklin returns to Philadelphia eighteen months later. Remaining in England, Ralph attempts to become a man of letters, turning his hand to poetry, plays, and social commentary, writing The Taste of the Town: or a Guide to all Publick Diversions, by A. Primcock (1728/30). Since theatres are rowdy places where one goes mostly to “chat, intrigue, eat and drink” (and tell fortunes?) Ralph advocates the pleasures of “low theatre,” farce, and tales of British folk heroes instead of the lofty classics. He meets the young Henry Fielding, who is just starting his writing career (Fielding is credited with writing some of the first English novels including Tom Jones and creating the first municipal police force, the Bow Street Runners).
Ralph’s theories influence Fielding’s most successful plays, one named The Farce and the other, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, the Great. They would remain life-long friends and collaborators.
Fielding’s The Farce features two main characters: Luckless, a penniless writer and Jack. A farce “is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. They are incomprehensible plot-wise . . . and viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed (wikipedia).”
Later in 1730, the same theatre presents a short, anonymous play, Jack the Giant-Killer: A Comi-Tragical Farce, that is a striking parody of James Ralph’s theatrical theories and Fielding’s comedy. It features the poet Plotless and the “hero,” Jack. This parody could have been written by Fielding and Ralph themselves as a spoof of their own theatrical endeavors. Or it could have been written by a rival playwright who hoped to make a laughing stock of the two of them. In the play, the Giants tell Queen Folly (who has usurped Reason) in a self-congratulatory way,
“’Twas we who snatch’d you from Obscurity, and to the grinning World disclos’d your Charms. . . . We vow ourselves your ever grateful champions. . . . Folly for ever, say we all.”
What is of most interest to us is that when Jack arrives to champion Reason and defeat the royal Sorceress Folly, Folly declares that before setting off to battle,
“First we’ll examine the Decrees of Fate, in mystic Coffee-Cups and Tea reveal’d; The new-invented Arts of Snuff and Cards, Shall all be try’d, the grand Event to show, If we, my Friends, shall conquer, or the Foe.”
So here, in 1730, we have the first mention of fortune telling with playing cards along with a description of the method and meaning of a reading, plus in the same sentence we find tasseomancy, which would later be linked with the meanings of Lenormand cards.
I’ll present the text with several unacknowledged cuts so as to focus on the readings.
SCENE: the Palace of Folly
A Table, Coffee-Cups, Folly, and the four Giants turning the Cups; three Women looking into them.
First Woman. I see a Gallows in this Cup, that must be for the Traitors to be sure: Here are small Crosses indeed, but you stand above ‘em. [The Significator is above the Crosses.]
Second Woman. Here is a Cock crowing in this, that betokens good News—Does not your Majesty expect a Letter? I see ’tis from the South—it comes from that Part of the Compass—the Cup being round, we have at once every Quarter of the Globe before us—your Allies are all firm to your Interest. But please to throw again—Your Majesty knows the third time is most to be depended on.
(To Gormillan (one of the giants)): You stand on a huge high Mountain, with several People about you, who seem to beg something. [I see] a Ring, my Lord, over a fine Lady’s Head: She sits by the Sea-side—she must be some Foreign Princess.
(To Thunderdale): I am certain you will conquer, for an Angel with gilded Wings holds a Laurel to you—an undoubted Sign of Triumph.
(To Blunderboar): A divided House! my Lord, you’ll be divorc’d from your Lady.
(To Galligantus): And you’ll be married, my Lord, to the great Fortune you have courted so long—here you are at the very Top of the Cup, and all your rivals are under your Feet—O, she has a vast Estate, I see Acres with Cattle feeding on them, Trees loaded with Fruit, Rivers and Ponds full of Fish—you’ll be a happy Man—you have been with her lately, I believe. [He responds that she didn’t treat him kindly.] I see now she was reserved—there was a little Cloud between you—but ’twill do for all that, my Lord; or I’ll never turn a Cup again.
— Note references above to the following images that appear in the
Viennese Coffee-Cards and Lenormand deck:
Cross, Bird, Mountain, Ring, House, Tree, Fish, Clouds —
And now to the card reading:
[Everyone clamors to have their questions answered.]
Queen Folly. You shall be satisfy’d anon—but we must lay the Cards first. Give us the Cards, that in our several Turns we all may Cut: I am the Queen of Hearts.
[First Woman gives the Cards to Folly, then to each of the Gyants, who cut, and deliver ‘em to her again, and she lays ‘em on the Table in Rows.]
First Woman. You, Lord Gormillan, are the King of Clubs; Lord Thunderdale shall be the angry Majesty of Spades; the Diamond Crown Lord Blunderboar shall wear; and King of Hearts Lord Gallivants shall assume.
The Knave of Spades, Madam, seems to threaten Danger, but he lies oblique [diagonal], and the Ten of Hearts between them shews he wants Power to hurt you—the Eight of Clubs and Ace over your Head denote a cheerful Bowl, and Birth will crown Night—all will be well—these Princes are surrounded with Diamonds; the Eight lies at the Feet of Lord Gormillan; the Deuce, the Four and Five are in a direct Line with Valiant Thunderdale; the Tray and Nine are at Elbow of great Blunderboar, and the Six and Seven are just over the Head of noble Gallivants. Some Spades of ill Aspect are mingled with them, but the Hearts and Clubs take off their malevolent Quality.
Folly. Go then, my Friends, secure of Fame and Conquest, The Oracles pronounce it.
[Jack and his Party enter. They throw down the Table, Cups, Cards, etc.]
A battle ensues. Jack slays the Giants. The Genius of the Isle [of Britain] descends, giving the Wand of Reason to Jack who touches Folly with it. She turns into a Monster garbed in Snakes. The mob declare themselves against her. Jack touches her a second time with the Wand, the ground opens and she sinks beneath it. Reason’s declared triumphant.
The method of reading playing cards is remarkably similar to laying out the Lenormand deck. All the cards are laid in a series of rows. One then finds the person’s Significator and reads the cards immediately around it. You can also examine the cards of significant others or cards that reflect topics of concern. The layout may have looked something like this 4×13 layout, although they might have used 6 rows of 9 cards (except the 6th row with 7).
In a later play called The Astrologer: A Comedy, Ralph seems to allude to Jack the Giant-Killer when he writes:
“This is an Age of Reason, Man we see with our own Eyes, and give no Credit to what surpasses our Understanding.”
” True, Sir; but my Father’s as superstitious as if he had liv’d two Centuries ago. . . . “
” Men are more ashamed of this Folly, but not less inclin’d to it: witness the very Nonsense of Coffee-Grounds, which is grown into a Science, and become the Morning Amusement of Numbers, in every Corner of the Kingdom.”
The Taste of the Town, Or a Guide to All Publick Diversions. by A. PRIMCOCK• (pseud. James Ralph) (1728/30).
“Fielding’s Indebtedness to James Ralph” by Helen Sard Hughes, Modern Philology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Aug., 1922), pp. 19-34.
Also check out: “Reading Coffee Grounds: A Lady’s Hobby” (blog post).
The original 1745 print, “Casting the Coffee-grounds,” is from my personal collection.
Thanks to Kwaw on aeclecticforum.net who first brought this play to my attention.
*A. Primcock (James Ralph’s pseudonym). The word, primcock literally means “whore-penis’: a man who sleeps around indiscriminately. It appears as an insult in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.