Fun and Games With The World's Oldest Deck of Cards

The world’s oldest complete deck of playing cards comes to us from the 15th century. The Flemish Hunting Deck, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has four suites (hunting horns, dog collars, hound tethers, and game nooses), with thirteen cards each (numbers and face cards). So it quite resembles modern decks.

The Met acquired the deck from an Amsterdam antiques dealer in 1983. It was once believed that the cards dated back to the 16th century, but the dealer thought they were even older, and purchased the whole set for a mere $2,800. After investigating the cards in detail (the dress of the Burgundian royal figures painted on the face cards, and a pair of watermarks found elsewhere in the deck), it came out that they were actually created between 1475 and 1480 CE.  

Although now more than 500 years old, the game resembles a contemporary 52-card deck to a surprising degree. It's certainly fun to look at, but we wondered: what would it be like to play a 15th-century card game?

The staff at Atlas Obscura recreated the deck and played with it to find out. Maybe if they had tried a modern game, like poker or canasta, it would have been easier. But they tried learning the ancient game of Karnöffel. The lack of numbers in the corners would have thrown me. Learn how that turned out, as well as the history of playing cards, at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Eric Grundhauser)

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