History Rant #3: The Church Condemned Tarot
The Church condemned tarot and the Inquisition put the screws on tarot readers – an urban legend that just won’t die.
It’s true that in the old days, priests ranted about vices like dice and cards, and town councils passed laws against them. But these prohibitions were aimed at games that encouraged the lower classes to waste time instead of working. It must have been terribly aggravating to find your valet in the pantry shooting dice with the kitchen boy instead of polishing your boots or buffing your armor.
A Sunday hellfire sermon against gambling and other vices was a useful tool for controlling the underclass. But the Church was careful not to antagonize the aristocracy by throwing a wet blanket on their leisure activities. Classifying chess and tarocchi as games of skill skirted around the anti-gambling laws.
Back in 2003, on the now-defunct Yahoo Group Tarot_L, Mary Greer, Michael Hurst and Ross Gregory Caldwell discussed this and posted quotes from books by Ruth Martin and Margaret Rosenthal (see references below).
These quotes give evidence that setting up an altar with candles and the tarot Devil card, then praying to the devil for assistance, was not unheard of in the 16th century, and would get you unwelcome attention from the Inquisition. The Devil card is mentioned twice in the records of the Venetian Inquisition, but it’s notable that negative attitudes toward the Devil do not bleed over into the deck itself. The Inquisitors say nothing about tarot being a work of the Devil, or a bad influence that should be suppressed; and there’s no mention of the deck being used for divination.
I suspect the idea of tarot being heretical has so much traction because it gives the deck a delicious air of danger and subversion that it didn’t have back in the days when it was primarily a card game.
Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650, by Ruth Martin. Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1989.
The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice, by Margaret F. Rosenthal. U of Chicago Press, 1992.