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There are many people who do not believe that God exists, nor do they think that the human soul lives on after the death of the body. They consider that the universe has always been as it is now and is ruled by chance rather than providence.

Peter of Cornwall (1200)

Quotes like the one above, written by medieval scholar and prior Peter of Cornwall over 800 years ago, complicate our idea of the Middle Ages as a time of uniform and unthinking religiosity. They remind us that throughout history – even in times when accusations of heresy loomed large – there have been people apathetic about religious observance, sceptical of religious teachings, and living by values guided by ideals we might call humanist today. This playing card, created in the 14th century, epitomises this: a reminder of the ever-presence of secular culture and entertainment, a belief in random chance vs. divine providence, and the playful mocking of religious hypocrisy.

Although sermons and religious treatises frequently derided card games as entry points to gambling and vice, they remained a widespread and popular pursuit during the medieval period. While this in itself recalls the enduring importance of entertainment, relaxation, and companionship in making life worth living throughout history, this particular card also contains a criticism of those who might condemn it. The work of German artist Hans Schäufelein, this 10 of hearts depicts a monk and a nun engaged in a game, while the monk clutches a money-bag, suggesting the perceived hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.

Image: 10 of Hearts, from The Playing Cards of Hans Schäufelein, ca. 1535. German, Nuremberg. Germanisches Nationalmuseum via The Met Museum

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Living by Their Wits: Cards Games in the Middle Ages | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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