Playing Cards in the Danish Church

Playing Cards in the Danish Church

The text without illustrations.

Playing Cards in the Danish Church


Hans J. Hinrup

In Denmark we also use the Lutheran saying, that ”It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church”.

Likewise there is a relaxed relationship through history between the DanishChurch and Playing Cards (the wording playing cards also include card playing), with the exception a few of very devout Christian groups. This paper though will mainly focus on interesting themes from a collector’s point of view, starting with small stories and sayings and then continuing to an alleged case of severe blasphemy.

Finally there is a question on the identification of one single card.

The oldest references to playing cards in Denmark are from the account books of King Hans (1481-1513). Starting with the accounts for 1487 it is meticulously listed how much he has won and lost in card games, and also how many decks he bought. But we can extract no information about the card decks, – except that the frequent acquisition of new decks clearly indicate the fragility or poor quality of the card decks at the time.

The typical Danish Church as we have them in hundreds were mostly built in the 12th and 13th centuries with solid granite ashlar walls. Such a church was built about 1150 in the small village of Vinderslev in the middle of Jutland. That church is significant for us, because it has the earliest extant picture of playing cards in Denmark. The ceiling in the church is covered with frescoes from the 16th century. Among the many biblical themes there is a picture of a lady sitting at a table with cards in front of her.(ILLUSTRATION 1) The lady is supposed to be Lady Karin Krabbe, from the neighbouring manor house. One saying tells, that she has built the church using money won in card playing. This clearly is a silly tale, as the church was built several hundred years before her time. There are other more or less fanciful explanations. But … she has probably just funded the elaborate decoration of her local church. Whether this funding was founded by money won in cards we will never know. But the frescoes clearly was for the edification of the church, the congregation and maybe even the pastor.

But alas! Another old Danish saying applies here. It says: “Where our Lord builds a church, the devil builds a pub”.

One pastor, pastor Bagger at Aarhus Cathedral who had been drunk the evening before, opened his sermon such: “Last night I was intoxicated by sweet wine; but today I am intoxicated by the words of The Lord”. Another pastor, who was known for drinking, lectured in his sermon: “Do as I say, and not as I do”, an expression many of us may have use of.

The church and pastors and drunkenness come close to our theme: Playing Cards and card playing. Pastors do also play cards.

Several stories relate, that the pastor vows or even make bets, that he can insert card terminology into his sermon. In one story he promises to mention the four colours of a deck.

In Danish the sermon goes like this: „Men naar Djævelen farer gennem Eders Ruder og slaar sine Klør i Eders Hjerter, saa skulle I raabe: Ak, spar os!”

To understand this in English you must know that Diamonds in Danish is Ruder (also the word for a window pane), Clubs in Danish are Klør (also the word for claws), Spades in Danish are Spar (also the word for spare /spare me). So a translation is something like this: “But when the Devil breaks through your WINDOWS and buries his CLAWS in your HEART, then you would cry: Oh, SPARE us!”

In another story the pastor should say: “Clubs have the lead”. Again clubs in Danish also means ‘claws’. The Danish word for ‘have the lead’ also means ‘spread out’, – so he says: “What is spread out? Claws (Clubs) are spread out, – and which claws? The claws of Satan!”.

And finally this one, where he has to use the word Trumph. He says: “Trumph, trumph, trumph has been the word in gambling houses last night, but TRIUMPH, such is the word we will hear in our Christian congregation today!”.

One last reference. In a report from about 1750 from the local pastor, he mentions how a deceased person lay at home in the open coffin, during the mourning days, which often turned into small feasts with eating, drinking, and dancing – and playing cards on the coffin lid!!

Moving from pastors and sermons I will now disclose the almost blasphemous intrusion of playing cards into the realm of the church.

But first an English example. A prayer book with the title “Let us Pray”– No, a closer reading reveals the title to be ”Let us play”! – and it contains a deck patience cards! (ILLUSTRATION 2 – may be left out)

But worse, ladies and gentlemen. The Danish culprit. Two card decks with a box clearly designed to parade as a Hymn Book!! (ILLUSTRATION 3)

The keyword, the evidence to remember is: Holmblads Salmebog! – that is: Holmblad’s Hymn Book.

The Holmblad Family is the most renowned cardmaker-family in Denmark, – almost card-maker-dynasty. Jacob Holmblad and Lauritz Peter Holmblad. Highly esteemed burghers of Copenhagen. Active in the years 1820 to 1837 and 1837 to 1890. Decorated by the King, heading a broad spectrum of industrial enterprises, – among those: card-making.

Are they really responsible for that hymn-book, for such a profanation of the church?

Hmmm! – No. – And why not??

Because of Pieter Mefferdt and the servant Jan and East Germany!

Pieter Mefferdt / Peter Meffardt. Dutch Card-maker in the 17th century.

His decks were the most commonly used in Denmark. They are even mentioned in the first ever privilege to a Danish Card-maker, that given 1673 to Fridrich Jacobsen, where it is a condition for the privilege that “the cards be of the best sort or at least as good as the cards made by Peter Meffart”. The National Museum in Copenhagen still holds decks by Meffart, (ILLUSTRATION 4 – may be left out) but more important today is, that with his cards came the expression “Mefferts Book”

The earliest mention I have found in Denmark is from 1652 in a collection of poems with the Low German title “Veer Schertzgedichte. In Nedderduedisch gerimet” (published under the pseudonym of Hans Willmsen L. Rost) by the German poet Johann Lauremberg (1590-1658) who served as professor in Mathematics in Denmark from 1623 till his death.. In the fourth poem he writes:

“In sülvern Kannen sindt gy beter gelehrt,

Vnd hebben in Peter Mafferts Boeck lenger studeert.”

Which translates something like

“With silvery pitchers you are better acquainted

And have studied longer in the book of Peter Maffert.”

And two later examples:

One by the most renowned Danish collector of old sayings as well as a poet himself, the man Peder Syv (1631-1702), who wrote the poem “Kriig” / “War” in 1663. The poem tells of all the bad things of war, and also that ”instead of the Bible you are led to Peter Mefferts book”.

And finally a quote from the Danish poet Jacob Worm (1642-ca.1693) in a poem from 1674 with the untranslatable title “Baads-Mends ære-digt om den Gyldene Win-tapper-svend”. He has a sequence which translates such: ”In learned books he is an experienced man, the Mefferdi Works were him ever at hand

So – now we have established, that decks of cards were called ’Meffert’s book”, – and that the bible is mentioned in the same context. This is the 17th century.

We may safely suppose, that this nickname for a deck of cards, this sobriquet, – this pet-name – was used in the next century also, – as even more explicit theology-related names for card decks were widely in use in the 19th century.

Were the honourable Jacob and L. P. Holmblad really responsible for this?

I think not.

It was in their time  common to use not only the expression ‘hymn-book’ for a deck of cards, but you could also say: read in the ‘cathecism’, or ‘the devil’s cathecism’, or ‘the devil’s hymn-book’, – and even ‘the bible’.

Before I totally acquit the Holmblad family from the charge, I now turn to “The Soldier’s Prayerbook”

Ali Jerremalm wrote about it in The Playing Card (Apr-June 2011, pp.234-237), and you will remember the tale from other recounts.

This story is also known in Denmark.

The Royal Library holds a copy, where the (translated) title starts with “A very beautiful story, about a servant …”. This copy is from between 1842 and 1873. (ILLUSTRATION 5 – may be left out)

But I own an older version (ILLUSTRATION 6) where the (translated) title is “A Very Amusing Story about the Servant by Name of Jan, who used a Deck of Cards as his Almanac and Prayer-book” According to a registration in The Bergen Public Library in Norway my copy is probably from about 1790.

There have been more versions. One is listed in a dictionary with the (translated) title: “The devout servant’s gospel.”

Now – this story illustrates the duality between playing cards and the church, but I mention it here only to show, that the terminology was commonplace both before and after Holmblad sold his decks.

So. Let us take a closer look at the known Holmblad Hymn-books.

A fine version has belonged to the successors of the Holmblad-factory. (ILLUSTRATION 7) The deck now is in England with the family. It contained the eminent Holmblad-deck from about 1850 with historical courts. The back title was “Whist Necessaire”. Nothing about a hymn-book

The next version however (ILLUSTRATION 8), I admit, does look like a hymn-book, but the back title is “Jacob Holmblads Samlede Værker/Collected Works 1-2”. It is similar, but smaller, to the earlier shown item, whose title was Jacob Holmblad’s Værker/Works, 1.-2.Deel

And the others. A red version with the title “Jacob Holmblad Værker/Works I-II” and with a clear ornamentation of club, heart, spade and diamond on the spine, and lhombre-counters on the front. Not even the slightest likeness of a hymn-book.

Neither has the box, decorated all over with cards. The back title is “Holmblads Samlede Værker / Collected Works I-II”. It is more interesting to observe, that the cards are with the Berlin Pattern a pattern never used by Holmblad!

Neither has the blue box, with the spine title Holmblads Værker/Works I-II.

So – these boxes are without any blasphemous connotations, just as the last brown card-box is. Again with the four colours on the spine and the front, and with the back title of “Black and Red” and “The Study Library”.

Our times however are often without proper decorum, so some time in the 1980s, I think, was published a primitive plastic version of “Holmblads Salmebog”. (ILLUSTRATION 9-10 – the picture with only closed boxes is optional) This time with the explicit title Holmblads Salmebog / The Holmblad Hymn-book, and with a close resemblance to hymn-books in use. It is a further blasphemy – or irony – that these decks were printed by the firm Coeur in the socialist former East Germany.

Please rest in your graves, dear Jacob and L. P. Holmblad. Your names have been assaulted, but no shame is on you.

The final conclusion is this: Apart from a few extremely devout and strict Christian sects, there has been a relaxed relationship between the Danish Church and playing cards. From the church point of view, playing cards were on level with women, drinking, fighting, eating and so on, – a thing of our daily life, and like so many other things: Unless man has an excessive passion, use, misdemeanour, abuse, – there is nothing special the matter with playing cards.

The absolute fusion of the two we can see in one last deck of cards (ILLUSTRATION 11), privately ornated, probably in 1995, with quotes from the Bible on every card.

One last thing though.

A story tells that once there were three choir-boys, who used to sit behind the altar and play cards while the pastor held his sermon, when at one time a huge stone fell from the vault and killed all three of them. The stone was laid up on a beam behind the altar, and it is told, that when at times someone moved it away, it was found in place again, moved by unknown forces.

This tale is told in connection to one single card, which many years ago was found in Aarhus Cathedral behind the choir stalls. It is now in the museum “The Old Town” in Aarhus.

On the catalogue card the size is told to be 8,7 x 5 cm., and that the card is mounted in a glass frame. I asked for permission to see the original.

They could not find it!

Fortunately they held an enlarged black-and-white photograph of the card.

(ILLUSTRATION 12). We can not see the colours, we can not see the reverse, and the card has been eaten by insects here and there.

But we can – on the front – read the words SIP RINKOMA printed in reverse.

Is he holding a cup! Or money? Or? Is it Italian, Spanish, or?

Where is it from? Please help, help solve the mystery.


At the conference several answers were given to the question.

Thierry Depaulis has summed up the solution such:

It must be a Jack of Hearts from the so-called Flanders (or Flemish) pattern, a pattern designed in Rouen and massively exported to northern Europe, where it was also produced in Antwerp, later in Amsterdam by Pieter Meffert.

A set of 12 courts by Meffert is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. See the article by Thierry Depaulis “Les Cartes de Pieter Mefferdt, The Playing Card, 17, no.1, 1988, and, more recently, the article by Lex Rijnen “Three centuries of playing cards in the Netherlands 1600-1900”, The Playing Card, 37, no. 4, 2009, p. 239-249.

The Jack of Hearts from the BNF set is similar to the Danish card – although the style is different – and he is also called SIPRIN ROMAN (ILLUSTRATION 13 – this picture is optional).

More can be found in the IPCS Pattern Sheet on the Flanders (or Flemish) pattern,

The most puzzling thing is why the caption is written backwards.

It is possible the woodcutter made a mistake (cutting the words in the direction of reading, instead of the other way round) because he didn’t himself understand the words!


The precise references to the mentioned quotes may be requested from the author on

Thank you to K. Frank Jensen for the two first illustrations of “Hymn Books”.