When it comes to the court cards of the tarot, sometimes newer tarot enthusiasts get a little stuck. Often books that provide an introduction to the tarot offer a completely separate section in order to address how to interpret these “people” cards. It makes sense that we get a little perplexed—after all, pinning down individual human characters can be a challenge even in real life. Here are these twelve cards of individuals frozen in time and gesture on these cards… We can’t hear the tone of their voices; we can’t hear what they’re saying; we can’t read the movements of their body language as they respond to our various questions… How are we supposed to know what’s going on in their heads, or what they represent, or how they’d respond to the dilemmas we pose to them?
Often, we use our imaginations to attribute character on each of these individuals. Their smirks or smiles or bushy brows might remind us of characters we’ve encountered previously in life, and we easily project those characters onto the cards.
In other instances we take a more meticulous approach to these cards’ personalities by combining interpretive methodologies. For instance, we can attribute the suits’ values (for example, Cups might be “receptive” or “fluid”; Swords might be “swift,” “airy”, or “eloquent.”), and combine them with attributes that we associate with each office (Queens might be more nurturing; Kings might be masterful adepts, Pages might be associated with studying or with service). And through a combination of these various attributes, we might alight on an agreed upon personality represented by a specific court card.
But there’s another way, too. Being that the tarot is an historical document, we might as well look at the historical aspect of the societal roles that inform the images on those cards. This is the hermeneutical approach—researching what the historical (Medieval) mind associated with each of those social roles (pages, knights, queens, and kings) and recognizing how those historical ideas influence how we understand and think about those roles today.
A recent paper in the Roda da Fortuna, the Electronic Journal about Antiquity and Middle Ages, seeks to analyze the presence of ideals of Christian chivalry as presented in Ramon Llull ́s The Book of the order of chivalry (c. 1272- 1283). This historic piece of literature has allowed researchers to reflect on aspects of not only the history of education, but also medieval values, ideas, and virtues of Christian chivalry in the thirteenth century.
Chivalry was the responsibility and arena of knights in medieval society. As the paper states:
“Llull presents the chivalry education permeated by higher virtues such as justice, wisdom, charity, loyalty, truth, humility, strength and hope, preceded by the more important all of them – loving and fearing God. These virtues are components that constitute the major character of a knight who defends the faith of Christ. The knight should be brave, righteous and having salvation because it would have been anointed by God to take his word. Thus, this literary work aimed at the rider education through their behavior, values that underpin the Christian chivalry and the ideals that should be disseminated by it, considered models of education of the society.
“Llull suggests how to be a good Christian and how to obtain salvation, a very important and strongly intrinsic goal to general medieval men. In addition, Llull dictated rules that assist in the formation of the knight and its revaluation as a social model, in order to conquer respect for being the way in which the lost virtues could be recovered.”* (italics mine)
Knights were therefore the models and defenders of the medieval concepts of virtue. Virtue was an important pedagogical tool in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and virtue pedagogy even infiltrated the tarocchi deck when it was created in the early fifteenth century. Today we still can recognize the Cardinal Virtues in our contemporary decks as Fortitude/Strength (VIII); Justice (XI); Temperance (XV); and elusive Prudence (variously attributed to the World card [XXI], or even as the tarocchi gameplayer—or tarot reader—him- or herself).
What does that mean for our interpretation of the four knight court cards? Well, we can still attribute suit or station characteristics towards those cards. But they also represent an ideal life lived towards attaining salvation in (Christian philosophy). Those knights aren’t just trying to model good virtues, they are leading the rest of society towards their example. They are our modern day sports heroes, who idolize virtuous social life by visiting sick children in hospitals, and set the tone for patriotism by standing reverently with hand over heart during the national anthem, and model excellent fitness levels for young enthusiasts of the game.
Defender, model, and champion of the virtues most respected by society. When challenged, the knights express the epitome of each virtue at the ready by brandishing their chosen weapons/suits. It doesn’t mean those knights can’t have their flaws or downfalls. Even our contemporary sports heroes succumb to moral lapses—drugs or steroid use, domestic assault, or other crimes that tarnish our views of these heroes. Everyone is susceptible to downfall regardless of our idolization.
But it is the ideal that is portrayed by show or example that matters—not necessarily lived—which the knights represent in their shiny hero’s armor.
Marroni, Paula Carolina Teixeira, and Oliveira, Terezinha. “Ramon Llull and The Book of the Order of Chivalry:: an attempt to retake the ideals of the Christian Chivalry.” Roda da Fortuna. Revista Eletrônica sobre Antiguidade e Medievo 2016, Volume 5, Número 2, pp. 152-164. ISSN: 2014-7430. (Full text can be found online at: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/3fdd18_809f10b650044a3b96d8c41637749158.pdf [last accessed 8/15/2017].)
Here are some additional websites with general or trivia information on medieval knighthood:
https://www.britannica.com/topic/knight-cavalryman (last accessed 8/20/2017)
Barber, Richard. The Knight and Chivalry. (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1970)
Just Released by the WhiteRose Consortium:
“Henry V, Flower of Chivalry” by Craig Taylor…
http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/76293/1/taylor_craig_2013_henry_v.pdf (last accessed 8/31/23017)