The History of the Fool Card

 

Of the often-seen features on the card, the cliff, Sun, and mountaintops first appeared in the Waite-Smith deck. The bag tied on the stick, the walking staff, the dog, and the clown-like costume are ancient elements of the design, going back to at least 1500.

The Fool has never been called anything else. In Italian, it is il matto, in French le mat or sometimes le fou (both having essentially the same meaning).

In the antique decks (before Waite-Smith), the Fool is almost always unnumbered, even though the rest of the major arcana bear roman numerals I through XXI. There are a few exceptions: two old decks (including the 15th-century Sola Busca) label the card with a "0", and the Belgian Tarot designs (made by various manufacturers in the 18th century) label the Fool as "XXII". So although the Fool is almost always completely apart from the sequence of trumps in the historic decks, there is historic precedent for regarding it as the lowest trump and as the highest trump!

The suggestion that the Joker in the standard deck of playing cards evolved from the tarot Fool is appealing and often repeated. Present scholarly opinion, though, weighs in against it. The Joker first appeared in the US around 1850, probably for playing either Poker or Euchre. Although it is possible that whoever invented the Joker had seen a tarot deck and liked the Fool card, it would have been a deliberate "borrowing" at a very late date, not any kind of retention from early times.

In the game of tarot, the Fool has a unique role, similar to that of a "wild card" (Joker) but different in interesting ways. Whereas a wild card assumes the identity of a card to player would like to have, helping the holder win the hand, the Fool is an "excuse"--it can be played at any time, but it never beats any of the other cards. So why play it, if it can't win? The reason is that it is worth a lot of points, and you get to keep it after you play it, even though the winner gets to take away all the other cards that were played in that trick. So the Fool is a very lucky card to have. If you are dealt it, you know that you'll be getting those points, no matter what. And it can save you from having to sacrifice a valuable card or reveal that you've run out of a particular suit, for example. Playing the Fool is like momentarily exempting yourself from the rules of the game.

In some of the Swiss and Austrian versions of the tarot game, the Fool had lost this special role and become just the highest rank trump, beating the World card. (This may be why those Belgian tarot decks number the Fool XXII). Interestingly, this is precisely the role the Joker plays in the game of Euchre. So maybe there is a connection there after all!

Visconti-Sforza triumph cards, c. 1450
Tarocchi del Mantegna, c. 1465

The oldest surviving Fool card is the one from the Visconti-Sforza deck, dated to about 1450. Here the Fool has no dogs, and is standing still rather than walking. Instead of a clown costume, he is dressed in white rags and has feathers in his hair. Gertrude Moakley (1966) suggests that he is a personification of the season of Lent, which is a time of austerity and fasting. She also suggests that this Lent figure evolved into the white clown of the commedia dell'arte. Another connection along these lines is the "Misero" figure in the Tarocchi del Mantegna. This is a man in rags, leaning on a stick, and accompanied by dogs. The title tells us that he is a symbol of poverty, humanity in its lowest condition, a beggar.

The figure with the walking stick and dog seems to have been the original Fool in the tarot traditions of northern Italy: Milan and Venice. This was the version that made its way to France and Switzerland around 1500, and has become familiar to centuries of tarot enthusiasts. But elsewhere in Italy, as the tarot migrated south, a slightly different image emerged. Not obviously a traveler, the southern Fool is an entertainer of children, perhaps a simple-minded person with a childlike love of fun and games. See, for example, the Mitelli (Bologna) and Minchiate (Florence) fools. The modern Tarocco Bolognese, which is still used to play the tarot game in Bologna to this day, again shows us the carefree entertainer, with feathers in his hair, playing a drum.

Tarocchini di Mitelli, c.1665
Minchiate Etrutia, c. 1725
Tarocco Bolognese, modern

One reason for looking at the history of the card is that it may help us appreciate some of the basic ideas that were behind it in the beginning. Can we put this all together and catch a glimpse of what was on the mind of the person who designed the first tarot deck?

Perhaps the Fool was intended to show the simplest state for a human being--a person without money, power, or intellect. With our modern sensibilities, most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of ranking people, especially when it comes to putting someone at the bottom because of the misfortunes of birth or circumstance. We would like to mitigate the differences between that separate us from the less fortunate, rather than emphasize them. The mentality was somewhat different in earlier centuries, however. The fool or simpleton was unabashedly mocked and scorned on the one hand, but on the other hand became a vehicle for many profound ironies. In Shakespeare, for example, it is the Fool who speaks the most profound truth. And the man in poverty represented the Franciscan ideal of godliness. So, in a delightful reversal reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia, the Fool becomes both wiser and holier than the Pope!

I think this ironic mindset was very much at work in the design of the tarot Fool, especially when one considers not just the image on the card, but its role in the game. Of the trumps, only three are worth points in the game: The Fool, the Magician, and the World. And these are the most valuable cards in the game, equal to the kings in point value. But whereas the World beats every other card in the deck, the Fool beats none! It is a very strange thing, really, a card that brings the holder a great reward, but does so by losing! A card exempt from the usual rules, and a card you can never lose to another player.

The Fool makes a profound statement, it seems to me, dropped in amongst the kings, queens, and powers of the cosmos. All the other cards are in competition with each other in the game; each player hopes their card will "triumph" over those of others, and much distress results if a valuable card is beaten and taken. But the Fool alone is not in competition; he's outside the game. In every hand he appears once, somewhere, unpredictably, never taking anything and never being taken. He just is. Total humility bestows invulnerability.

 

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Copyright 1999 Tom Tadfor Little