In a deck of playing cards, we use the term face card to describe a card that depicts a person rather than a number. They have also been referred to as court cards and coat cards (I imagine from “coats of arms”). There are many stories about the origin of playing cards, and there may be some truth to all of them. This is not something that matters a great deal, but I do find it interesting.
Playing cards originated in China, but cards used in China did not have face cards. Over time, as people interacted with one another with greater frequency, as they exchanged ideas and cultural practices, playing cards made a steady westward movement—first to Persia, the first to place face cards into a deck. Their human form was a mounted vizier and a seated king. From Persia, playing cards made their way to Egypt; the Mamluk created a third face card. The best-preserved deck of cards can be found in the Topkapi Palace and we find that these cards avoided idolatry by featuring abstract designs for royalty. Playing cards used by commoners may have been configured differently, however, which could explain the appearance of seated kings and mounted knights on Indo-Persian and European cards.
A third court-card may have had a special role to play in Spanish, French, and Italian playing cards. By 1377, the most common playing cards were essentially structured as they are today: each suit containing a seated king and two knights, one of these replaced by a queen in 1400s France, and the other was changed from a knave (servant) (page) to a Jack. The re-designation allowed card manufacturers to change the card’s abbreviation from Kn to J.
The Jacks, popularly named in France, were Ogier the Dane (a mythical character from early French poetry) for the Jack of Spades, Hector, from Greek mythology for the Jack of Diamonds, Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the lake, baptized as Galahad) was one of the Knights of the Round Table in the Arthurian legends —our Jack of Clubs, and the Jack of Hearts, Étienne de Vignolles called La Hire, a French military commander during the Hundred-years’ War,
History remembers Étienne de Vignolles as the ablest military commander serving under the 17-year old field commander, Joan d’Arc. He lived from 1390 to 1443 and may have participated in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where the French were first introduced to England’s longbow. He was clearly aligned with the cause to restore Charles VII after 1418. History remembers our Jack as loud, vulgar, and quick-tempered and his nickname La Hire may be a corruption of Ira Dei (wrath of God). He first fought with Joan during the Battle of Orleans and became her trusted right-hand during all subsequent battles. He led an audacious charge against the English at Patay in 1429, an action that resulted in the virtual destruction of the English field army and most veteran commanders. Over the next several weeks, subsequent gains in territory permitted the French to crown their new king on 17 July 1429.
Seeking to tame the beast within his breast, Joan’s influence over La Hire was a positive one, including his attendance at Confession … which, in addition to the filthy beast, soon included most of his lieutenants. At the end of Joan’s life, La Hire was one of only two French knights making the attempt to rescue her from English captivity. It was thus that La Hire found himself imprisoned by the English until a ransom was paid for his release. Afterwards, La Hire continued to fight the English during Charles VII’s re-conquest of Normandy. La Hire was appointed Captain General of Normandy in 1438. In a few years, our Jack of Hearts would be dead —the reason for his demise uncertain— as he vanished, wrote one romantic, in the mist of battle.