Italian renaissance woodcut playing cards

About the presence of female court cards

When cards arrived in Europe, all court cards were male – a king and two officials. North of the Alps, the officials were simply called Ober “upper” (literally the preposition “over” used as a noun) and Unter “lower” (likewise literally “under”) and distinguished mainly by the placement of the suit symbol (the upper or lower part of the card). South of the Alps, they became a cavaliere “knight” (later cavallo “horse”) and servo “servant”. In Italian cards, the servant at an early date changed to fante “infantryman”.

In Spanish and Portuguese cards the servant didn't undergo this reinterpretation, and was called sota “lower” (a usage parallel to German Unter, compare Italian sotto). Here, this card is in many patterns represented as female. Early Transalpine luxury cards also frequently made some court cards female, either by making all court cards of some suits female (i. e. having queens in the place of kings), or as became increasingly common, by adding queens as a fourth kind of court card, ranking just below the king. Tarocchi uses this format from their earliest appearance in Northern Italy (one early deck expands this to include female counterparts of all three original ranks).

In the group of cards discussed here, it is therefore surprising to find a female knave of coins in the tarot, and a female knave as well as a queen of cups in the reversed deck. In both cases, it is evident from the strucure of the decks that these are not additional ranks, but fill the roles of the usually male knave and king.