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From my Bookshelf: History of Woodcut by Arthur Hind

Arthur Hind History of Woodcut cover

Before tarot was a gilded status symbol for Italian aristocrats; before it inspired parlor games and poetry; and before it was a repository of occult correspondences, tarot was a set of paper cards printed in ink with wood blocks.

If we want to understand tarot’s formative years, we must understand the printing industry in the first half of the fifteenth century. Hind’s book gives a comprehensive survey of printers and their output, starting in the mid-fourteenth century, with an emphasis on the fifteenth century.

The materials and techniques for block printing with ink on paper came together about the same time playing cards were introduced to Europe. The printing industry got its initial push from fulfilling the demand for pictures of saints and for playing cards. Most printers divided their output between the two, owning wood blocks for both cards and religious prints.

Saint Dorothy fourteenth century wood block printPrints of saints were often used as amulets, especially to ward off the plague and for protection during travel. They were carried in pockets, pasted to the inside of travelling boxes, and tucked under pillows at night. Since cards and holy pictures came from the same source, I wonder if tarot cards were also used as amulets?

Humanist books for the educated elite had beautiful type, but were not illustrated.  Wood block illustrations were considered common and beneath the dignity of scholars and aristocrats. Hand-painted illuminated manuscripts were the only acceptable choice for the upper classes well into the fifteenth century. I wonder to what extent the upper classes used ordinary printed cards for game playing. Were they considered fit only for children and servants? We know from account books that the nobility bought inexpensive decks off the shelf. But it was common practice to send your prints out to be painted and gilded to your specifications. Did aristocrats actually play with their expensive hand-painted and gilded decks? This might explain the extreme damage to many of the cards.

Arthur M. Hind, 1880-1957, was a British art historian specializing in Italian prints, drawings and engravings. He wrote A Short History of Engraving and Etching, and A Catalogue of Early Italian Engravings in the British Museum, as well as the book referenced below. From 1933 to 1945 he was the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.


Arthur M. Hind. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut: With a Detailed Survey of Work Done in the Fifteenth Century. Two volumes. 484 illustrations.  Dover Publications, New York, 1963. Facsimile of the original publication by Houghton Mifflin, 1935.

Illustration: St. Dorothy, @1395, Munich. Found in the binding of a 1410 manuscript.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hey, Lady!! I’m seeing your name in lights these days — lately on Google+ where your article on “600 Years in the Making: Sharing Our Tarot Heritage” floated through my circle stream. The minute I saw the title, I knew it was either yours … or somebody you needed to know. I’m thrilled to see you getting some of the notice your Leo Rising self deserves. You’re on your way to being a national treasure.

    September 10, 2015
    • Hi Rebecca: I’m glad you saw the article. Brigit Esselmont asked me to be a guest blogger on What with that and a regular gig writing for Cartomancer magazine, my inner Leo is doing a happy dance while twirling sparklers.

      September 11, 2015

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