Even More Places to Find Humility in the Tarot

If you missed previous posts regarding the virtue of Humility in the tarot, you can find them here… and here…

Part 3: The Fool

Humility in the Fool? You think I must be joking… But research would seem to elucidate an element of humility—or lack of humility—in the history of the fool. In either sense—present or absent—we are provided a mode of observing, or gauging, or ruminating upon the virtuous nature of humility. Sometimes the absence of something can be just as auspicious, condemnatory, or revelatory as the presence of something.


Presented here, I would like to introduce some historical keys for associative attributions of the Fool card that I’ve thus far not really found as an interpretation in contemporary tarot literature. I’m not sure why, exactly, that this connection hasn’t been elaborated upon previously… unless, of course, unbeknownst to me, it has; or because of the other possibility that I’ve completely made a foolish error of association (I should always like to admit that I can be wrong—this, too, is humility). But I should like to propose it anyway, since the history of Renaissance Italy is currently being radically rethought by historians, and the complex machinations of politics and society during that time and earlier are worth inspection.


There are many reasons why historians have previously had a difficult go at the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of these reasons includes a lack of written records and loss of record keeping (printing wasn’t widely used until the mid-1400s; and paper for record keeping was of poor quality; plus storage of records was poor due to fire and water damage, plunder, or illiteracy; these among other reasons). Many Generation X-ers and earlier students probably remember being told when we were young that the Middle Ages were also known as the “Dark Ages.” This was because—or so we were told—that so few records existed, that it was a dire slump in human history, and that much mystery surrounded the time. We know a bit better now. Part of the trouble and another reason why scholarly thought is evolving, is because much of the literature and written records were written in Greek and Latin, and previous historians didn’t bother to investigate these documents or have them translated. The modus operandi of [outdated] academic investigation was to disregard these texts because they couldn’t possibly be of relevance in regards to day-to-day living unless the text was discovered in the common vernacular. But this premise was false because scholars at that time in history and those who read and wrote were doing so in Latin and Greek as was expected at universities and in any ecclesiastical documents. By todays’ standards of archeological historical research, that kind of presumption rather amounts to sloth—laziness—on the part of previous historians. Sad, but true. Perusing historical reference works—even through the 1950s—that were written by professors and “experts” in medieval archeology can provide a rather humorous reading experience for today’s students. The writings of highly revered academicians such as turn-of-the-20th-century French author and professor Emile Mâle—a supposed expert in Medieval architecture—are simply laughable by today’s research and archeological standards. Most contemporary academicians—even those who owe their livelihoods and prestige to the old ranks—are forced to “distance” themselves from the sloppy work of their predecessors as new and better structures of historical evidence present themselves, and also as they seek to attain some level of esteem in the academic world. [¹]


Now, of course, having set the bar rather ridiculously high for myself, and likely providing for my own excoriation, here it goes…


The Fool card, I believe, is a remnant image connected to All Fool’s Day, which was a feast day celebrating the circumcision of the infant Jesus on New Year’s Day. This would seem to provide reason for the card being numbered “0” (zero), because it represents the changing of the year; it is a completely new beginning; it is the cusp of the elliptical journey of the earth around the Sun that jettisons us into a fresh start in our cycle. And it is cyclical—life sometimes brings us right back to our humble core due to our stumbOuroborosling in foolish or sinful, ways. This is perhaps exactly why the Wheel of Fortune card has so often depicted donkey-eared fools being thrown around the perimeter of the circling spokes, continuously changing their position from high and from low. The New Year strikes the last and final moment of the old year, and strikes the birth of the new calendar—just like the ouroboros. Most people think of the New Year as an opportunity for a “clean slate.” I also feel like this is why—as a trump—the Fool is sometimes considered “low” and sometimes considered “high” (sometimes placed at the beginning of the Major arcana, and sometimes placed after the World card at the end… and even sometimes placed between the 20th and 21st cards—Judgment and the World cards). I imagine that in poker and so many other 52-card deck games, that the calling of “Aces high-or-low” is a remnant of this; it’s a kind of trump play that was shifted to the Aces for lack of the larger tarrocchi-deck Fool card (or other Major arcana trumps).


There’s also another reason why the Fool, in so many variations of the game of tarrocchi is the highest-playing trump, and it has to do with what All Fool’s Day was about and how it was celebrated. All Fool’s Day—also known variously (depending on location) as “Feast of Fools Day,” festum stultorum, fatuorum or fallorum; also variously called the festum subdiaconorum, festum baculi, and in a fashion quite more roguish, the “Feast of Asses,” or the asinaria festa—was the one day of the liturgical year when lower orders of the ecclesial hierarchy usurped the roles of their superiors during worship and the liturgy of the hours known as the Divine Office.

Ecclesial hierarchy or orders including diaconate and sub-diaconate

Ecclesial hierarchy or orders including diaconate and sub-diaconate

As with many Christian holidays and feast days, The Feast of Fools Day was arranged to replace the pagan harvest festival celebrating the Roman Saturnalia when, “all class distinctions were abolished, with slaves and their masters switching roles, and laws that normally governed sensible behavior [were] virtually suspended.” [²]


Remnants of the Saturnalia still persist in the released-inhibition revelry that exists around our own New Years celebrations—consider the crazy partying, “ringing in the new,” the drinking, the allowance to kiss whomever you’re nearest at the strike of midnight, and other such licenses of otherwise verboten release.


In the Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) public revelry went to extreme heights, and in France—and Paris particularly—bawdy escapades reached levels of heresy that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated. Many revelries were promoted by confraternities and guilds. (These were organizations of public service, often religiously affiliated, that provided social services, raised money for civic projects, and provided social communion between other merchants or townsfolk. A contemporary example—though modified through time—would be the Knights of Columbus or the Lions’ Club.) However, the release of inhibitions proved too tempting to be kept at bay, or even to be kept outside of the church doors. And, eventually, such egregious irreligious behavior took place that Pope Innocent III in 1198 made decrees to temper and structure the festival day within the practice of the Divine Office and Masses, specifically for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but as a model and warning for all other parishes as well.


The exploits of French revelers celebrating the feast day, and the infamous heresies of the subdiaconate in Paris surely resonated around Europe. Travel was common, especially among the educated between places of learning, and news certainly was spread this way. Stories were rampant of the desecration of the mass and the altars of French churches—whether embellished or not is hard for us to determine, although the pastime certainly had its entertainment value in a society that valued storytelling. One could virtually consider the donkey, mule, or ass to be the totemic animal of the Feast, since stories recounted that donkeys were strode up the nave to the high altar, and loud bursts of “hee-haw” were rumored to have been exclamated in lieu of proper responsorial Latinate. Thus, fool imagery is seemingly most often found depicting the fool character wearing a hat with donkey ears. Bawdy songs, desecration of vestments, drinking in the choir, and gambling with dice on the sacred altar [³] were all rumored to have taken place.

The social hierarchy of man

The triumph of Death depicting the social hierarchy of man from the Fool through the Pope

One way of regarding the tarot has always been as “the Fool’s journey.” The revelation of the Fool as a remnant of the Feast of Fools Day doesn’t change such a formulation or perception of the tarot as a progressive “ladder-climbing” movement by a foolish character to a more virtuous existence and attainment of moral rectitude. Rather, using the Feast of Fools as a basis for the depraved character of the Fool only accentuates the philosophy of the journey and the opportunity to highlight Medieval conceptions of the various virtues as understood at the time.

The Ship of Fools

The incomparable Brian Williams based his final Ship of Fools Tarot on the original woodcut art in Sebastian Brandt’s Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), originally published in 1494. In the introduction of the accompanying book to the deck, Williams notes the amazing synergy of the woodcut illustrations with the cards of the tarot:

“The striking thing about the Narrenschiff…is that fifteen or sixteen of the twenty-two tarot trumps can be found, readymade, among the one hundred or so woodcut illustrations, and almost all among the remaining half-dozen images can be concocted from Narrenschiff originals with only the slightest adjustment. This is not to suggest that there is any material connection between the tarot trumps, a series invented before 1450, and attached to the four-suit playing card deck of northern italy, and Brandt’s fifteenth-century German book. This coincidence suggests instead the point I have attempted to make many times in the past, in books and talks, that the archetypal images of the tarot have parallels and echoes everywhere in medieval and Renaissance culture.” (Brian Williams, Book of Fools, Introduction, p. xv)


While nothing Williams states in untrue, I feel that he has hit on something a bit grander than he has warranted. Feast of Fools celebrations in northern France and Paris—which took place several centuries before the fifteenth-century, when the tarot was invented or blossomed into existence, and thus is completely viable as an inspiration for the tarot—were so infamous, generated such mockery and reputation for Paris, that it became the stuff of ignoble legend, making Paris—thus France—the target of grand ridicule and satire. One also shouldn’t forget that the French-Italian Wars began in 1494 upon the death of Ferdinand I of Naples (the same year Das Narrenschiff was published), and that Charles VIII’s invasion and generally unhindered plunder through Italy commenced a 62-year enmity with the Habsburgs who controlled much of northern Italy. What else does one do in times of enmity but make fun of one’s enemies in a public manner? Advances in printing that allowed for the distribution of Das Narrenschiff just at that time also were making the printing of popular playing cards more accessible. [4]


While the fancy, gold-painted tarot cards that have survived and with which most tarot enthusiasts of historical decks are familiar (such as the Charles VI deck and the Visconti-Sforza deck) were created for the wealthy and the nobility, it is thought that much cheaper versions were created for the masses, of a [paper] quality that has not survived time. [5] So the images that Brandt included in Das Narrenschiff—which can be considered a satire of sorts, and a snide rib-poke at the French—would not have been so unfamiliar to contemporary 15th-century readers of the book. Rather, the images were serving virtually the same purpose as Brian Williams’s tarot deck images, which are precisely an imitation and resemblance to a set of visual, personified tropes and widely known references to the virtues, and/or the ladder of attainment towards purity and salvation.

The Fool wanring the Emperor and the Pope

The Fool “warning” the Emperor and the Pope.

The Fool—particularly in this ridiculed, mockeried French characterization—represents all that upright Medieval and Renaissance people knew to be folly, the antithesis of virtuous practice, sinfulness, and hubris. For the French to lose all inhibitions on a single day every year and desecrate the holiest of holies was anathema to everything that one learned about how to be humble in the sight of God. Those fools in Paris served as the perfect example of what not to do, how not to act, and how exactly one might be consumed by the devil himself.


So, the Fool—depicted at the bottom of the rung in the tarot—pilloried French rivals, supported nationalistic superiority by mocking the enemy, and provided a gauge by which to measure one’s virtue. The card’s ability to “trump” everything else in the deck only proved that it was a short journey back to foolishness, that folly could overtake oneself at any time in one’s life, and that only Prudence (which might be interpreted as “skill” at playing the game by taking all factors into account—who has already played such-and-such cards, the memory of who is holding a majority of certain suit cards, etc.) might lead one to victory.

The Fool card, Charles VI deck

The Fool card of the Charles VI deck

The moral was: don’t be like the French; don’t be a fool. Live life in humility towards the other virtues one can find in the tarot trumps, which were also exclaimed and expounded upon by the clergy as the proper steps for living well and attaining glory.

Fool card, inchoate deck

A syncretic image of the Fool as Magician or Troubadour in a version of the Minchiate deck.



[¹]  Edwin Panovsky, the celebrated iconologist, was a student of Emile Mâle, but this wouldn’t be evident to anyone reading any of Panovsky’s highly regarded books, as Mâle is hardly, if ever, mentioned in any of the literature. In truth, Panovsky consciously minimized the association due to excoriation of much of Mâle’s “research” methodology in the later 20th century by the archeological community.

[²]  http://www.newyorkcarver.com/feastoffools.htm  (last accessed February 3, 2015)

[³]  It should be remembered that in about 960 CE Bishop Wibold of Cambray became famous (or infamous, depending on your purview) for creating a dice game that could teach virtues while the lay class and populace gambled. His reasoning? If you can’t drag a horse to water, drag the water to the horse. If gambling was so pervasive that it infiltrated and corrupted even the monks of the abbeys, then he would turn the game of dice into a tool to teach the virtues and vices. Every dice combination was attributed to a different virtue (or vice). Points were acquired based on how high the virtues were that were thrown. This, of course, was a game dependent completely on chance. And one can see where games of chance can quite easily be transformed into fortunetelling when given associations. But the bishop’s intentions were as beneficent as that of a contemporary ethical tarot reader, as was noted by Ian P. Wei in his co-edited book Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press, August 2000), when he comments that the bishop’s rules for the game included the revelation of “a [specific] virtue, on which one was to concentrate for a certain length of time.” (p.181) There are several significant correlations between the throwing of dice and the card game of tarrocchi. For one, if a person throws two dice, the number of possible combination outcomes is equal to 21 (the number of Major arcana not inclusive of the numberless Fool card); if a person throws three dice, the number of possible combination outcomes is 56 (the number of pip and court cards in a tarrocchi deck). Coincidence? Deeper research on correlation between the two forms of gambling would be an interesting topic to investigate as a thesis. It seems unnecessary to conjecture that the reserved, tempered-style of Bishop Wibold’s version of dice was not the version used during the Feast of Fool’s Day sacrilege in northern France two centuries later. The list of Wibold’s dice combination attributes is pictured below:

Bishop Wibold's dice combination list of virtues

[4]  Evidence infers that the popularity of playing cards—perhaps even the Marseille Tarot—migrated from Italy to France likely at the time of these military campaigns, with soldiers bringing the souvenirs back and forth with them between countries during military maneuvers.

[5]  As Sheryl E. Smith notes on her wonderful tarot-heritage.com website: “No inexpensive wood block playing cards survive from the 15th century. Our only evidence for what these cards may have looked like comes from uncut sheets of cards dating from about 1500 that were unintentionally preserved because printing mistakes made them unusable. Instead of cutting the sheets up into individual cards, the printer used them as filler or end papers in book bindings. These unused sheets of cards were preserved with the books, and several have found their way into museums… It’s still an open question which came first. Were the luxurious hand painted cards modeled on mass produced tarot decks, or did a printer model his inexpensive block printed tarot deck on the aristocratic hand-painted pattern? Since the physical evidence is so sketchy, we can’t be sure which came first, or how closely the aristocratic hand made decks resembled the cards used for game playing.”  (http://tarot-heritage.com/history-4/italian-tarot-in-the-15th-century/   last accessed May24th, 2015)


Bibliography (over-and-above those referenced above) and suggested further reading:

Brandt, Sebastian, and Edwin H. Zeydel. The Ship of Fools. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1962 (1944).

Chanbers, E.K. The Mediaeval Stage. (2 vols.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903.

Harris, Max. Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Mallett, Michael Edward, and Christine Shaw. The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe. Haelow, England: Pearson, 2012.

Williams, Brian. Book of Fools. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

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Posted in Catholic Philosophy, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot History, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

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