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Emil Weber pulls a smartly-restored book and a piece of card stock to a table in his office in Stans. Inside the card stock are 90 crisp and remarkably preserved playing cards.
EMIL WEBER: So just have a look. It’s no problem to touch them…no problem to touch them. We just discovered them, that is the reason they are in such good condition.
Weber says the cards are “more or less” 500 years old, likely made in Basel in the 16th century. They feel like a light cardboard and were hidden beneath a flap in a book cover.
WEBER: So it’s quite common today find inside book covers old documents. But to find playing cards, that’s a rare find.
Weber says he spends most of his days filing modern records in one of the canton’s three storage rooms, but he still takes pleasure in historic finds like this one, if only for the speculation it allows.
WEBER: If you imagine how they lived, or how they played with these cards…talking about politics of the time, laughing together. That’s quite amazing sometimes.
Weber says Nidwalden actually banned certain card games in 1572, with an offense costing you 10 gold pieces—or a month’s wage. The only games specifically allowed were those played with tarot decks, like a game called The Empress, or Tarock. The Swiss gold standard for card games nowadays though…is Jass.
Jass is so popular it is broadcast on public television on a Saturday program Samschtig Jass. With his 500-year-old cards, archivist Emil Weber describes the game’s premise..
WEBER: There are four colors—the Schilde, Rose, Schelle, und Eichle.
Those are shields, flowers, bells, and acorns.
WEBER: It’s similar to poker cards and the higher cards beat the lower cards. And that’s how you play.
So opponents work in teams to play high-value cards to earn as many points as possible…vaguely similar to spades, or bridge.
WEBER: In the 16th century the highest card is the king. Then comes the, we say, Ober, the Under or the Bauer heute—farmer, and then comes the banner (flag), and then come the number cards.
Weber admits there are many questions and not many answers with these cards, but they are another piece of a rich history in Nidwalden.
The cards will likely end up behind this flood-proof, bomb-proof vault door where the canton’s written history is held.
WEBER: This charter dates 1218, that’s the oldest we have. You can see it’s parchment—you can feel the hide.
1218—more than 70 years before Nidwalden (at that time called Unterwalden) signed a defensive pact with Uri and Schwyz to form modern-day Switzerland. And that historic pride is not lost on residents. Weber says a couple dozen people have come in off the street in the last week to see the old Jass cards. Weber admits it’s not every day his office finds something so special, but he certainly likes the attention.
Total comments: 2 | Add to the discussion.
I hope that someone will do a re-make of these cards !!! I know that I would buy a set ! I bet the vibrations on these cards are amazing! I’d SO love to touch one ! Yisraela
These cards are remarkable, all right. The style is similar to other Medieval drawings, on Tarot cards of course but also in other works from the era.
Wonder what became of the missing four cards? Did they have special meaning to someone and they removed? Was it a dealt “hand” or layout? The fact that the cards were inside the flap on the court records book is interesting…wonder if the cards were used as diversion for the record keeper much as computer Solitaire games are today. :-)