Tarot Origin Theory
Sir Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett (1925-2011 )
First, let me quote Sir Michael Dummett, this laborious worker of the history of the tarot deck of cards, the father of the Lombardian Renaissance Theory of Tarot Origin:
« The progress achieved in the history of the playing cards and the card deck are often due to methods worthy of the detectives of detective novels: all rests on unimportant details which attract all of a sudden the attention, on hazardous but sometimes conclusive details brought together and on daring reasoning to explain the unexplainable one (…) It is, certainly, possible that the figures of the cards, the choice of the allegories or their arrangement authorize a type of esoteric reading or symbolic system. For my part I doubt it but I am ready to discuss it. One can be mistaken without risk on this precise point but it is a total ignorance of the game of tarot to admit the largely widespread idea, and yet without base, that it would have been invented for a occultist use, or it would have been an instrument of divination until his appearance as a game 350 years ago. » (1)
Dummett makes a distinction between esoteric or symbolic reading and occultist use. The formulation and the choice of the words testify to his doctrinal bias. M. Dummett is a philosopher. Rhetorically speaking, he sees the world trough the logico-immanentist filter, an approach where one drapes himself in the cloak of objectivity, thereby coming in contradiction with the fundamental polemic nature of historiography, as defined by historian Ronald Rudin. Historiography is not neutral and never should try to be.
It should be known that this Protestant author converted to Catholicism. As it is often the case with the¨conversi¨, he gives the impression to walk on water. His style is appropriate nevertheless for the work that he achieved about the presence of the Tarot in the adoption compost of Lombardy where the game truly took its rise as a tool of entertainment.
The Modern ones (Moderni) who designed the Tarot did not suffer from the cleavage lent indirectly to them by our Anglo-Saxon researcher. It is precisely to make of it an instrument of divination that the game of Tarot is impregnated with symbolism. It is the same logic which stands at the basis of the construction of the cathedrals, all due respect being paid to those who differ on this subject.
The allegorical representations raise the heart and prepare its spiritual ascent with prayers and, in last analysis, with divination. These representations are on various and varied levels covered with veils, filters of reading. I agree here with Victor Hugo who included/understood and celebrated better than anybody what hides behind the character of semantic opacity of these buildings of worship.
The meticulous analysis of the codings of the Tarot relegates to the dungeon the extraordinary theory which gives a Lombardian origin to the Tarot. It is an extraordinary theory even without my findings. It is extraordinary simply because it defies the scientific approach. It is an extraordinary theory because it is not a theory! It’s author is an obscure Oxford scholar who tried to have some impact somewhere, without much success. His Tarot contribution is the exception that confirms the rule.
He did have an impact there.
It should be known that the simple addition of the suffix co or chi to the word tarot is a typical tendency of the Lombards of the time. They adapted en masse the elements of the close dominant French culture which flowed on their territory trough the famous road which connected France and Italy of the time, the celebrated Via Francigena.
For Émile Male, ¨(…) French poetry entered in Italy by the main roads of the pilgrims; it is by these roads also that entered French art. In the current of XIIth century, we see the lombardian churches growing rich by new ornaments coming from France.¨(2) ¨What marvellous history that of these main roads of humanity! Rome had made them to be used for the conquest of the world, France makes use of it in its turn to spread its genius, and, with its pilgrims, its knights its poets, its artists, it starts, as of XIIth century, its eternal apostolat.¨(3)
It is Mircea Eliade which illustrates best the dangers which threaten the amateur historians or the scholars who have fallen for the restrictive so-called instrumental reasoning approach. Obviously, it is the trap into which Dummett fell when he considered the question of Tarot origins. ¨Every document, even contemporary, is veiled a long as one is not able to decipher it by integrating it in a system of significances. A tool, prehistoric or contemporary, can reveal only its technological intentionality: all that its producer or his owners felt, dreamed, imagined, hoped in relation to it escapes us. It is at least necessary to test us to the non material values of the tools (…). If not, this semantic opacity can impose to us a completely erroneous design of the history of the culture. We risk, for example, to confuse the appearance of a belief with the date with which it is clearly attested for the first time.¨(4)
In short, even if it is attested that the first specimens of tarocchi appeared in the Italy of the Renaissance, in no case is this sufficient to issue that it is the period and the place where the game was created.
I thus trace the line clearly. Dummett’s credo is a fossil. His whole argument has set back the research on the origin of Tarot by two hundred years. Ground will only be regained here by going back to classic iconographic analysis, such as the one attempted by abbot Constant, for example.
The discovery of a code in the Tarot de Marseille makes it possible to attach the game to one precise historical period, the one which Jacques Le Goff calls the beautiful Middle Age, and to illuminate it in a new light. We have to mourn for many obsolete concepts. The lighting that I propose makes us consider the game and the time which gave it birth in a new paradigm. We must give up the idea that it was born in the Italy of the Renaissance. After all, we are in the XXIth century, at the time of the euro; one cannot continue to count eternally in liras!
The Tarot was invented by the abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (France), a benedictine monk, the precursor of Gothic art, in the scriptorium which was next to its abbey church, in the middle of the XIIth century. The specialists recognize that the inspiration in the symbolic system at the base of the constitution of the images of the Tarot is of comparable nature with that which gave rise to the Gothic art.
Many however still hesitate to place the origin of the Tarot in the France of XIIth century. The documentary evidence seems non-existent. This debate recalls the contradictory discussions about the origin of the famous Roman de Renart. There, research progressed only at the time when researchers agreed to consider the nature of various versions of this text rather than dwell endlessly on the documentary sources existing about it. When one agrees to examine the game itself, one will have to go to the obvious that its codings can only be the fruit of the period and the geographical area that I identified.
Actually, the possibility that the original Tarot was a tool designed in secrecy – thus leaving little or no documentary traces – corresponds to the criteria which define the parameters of historical research. The Tarot initially surfaced abroad following a break in the veil which covered its existence. It reappeared in its country of origin, after a long period of hibernation.
The work of Tarot is closely related to the France of the Middle Ages and the French language even if it is impregnated with external contributions. However, the often disrespectful aspect of some parts of the unit gives the impression that it was conceived by critical observers – ones who did not lack humor – operating a little in the background of the society that they depicted.
Thus, it is also a work of art.
My findings concern some of the keys of this masterpiece of ingeniousness. I do not claim to have said all that there is to say on it. However, the framework of interpretation rediscovered here should make it possible to establish the bases of a new comprehension of the game and perhaps to establish a bridge between researchers working within other disciplines.
This translation is by the author, Rom, with Babelfish
1) Michael Dummett, in Tarot, jeu et magie, p. 9-10
(2) Émile Mâle, L‘art religieux au XIIe siècle en France, p. 273
(3) Id., p. 279
(4) Mircea Eliade, Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses, tome I, p. 17