A War Fought with Playing Cards

Holger Steigerwald has pointed fellow magic historians towards an interesting piece of academic research on 17th century English playing cards. It was written and published as a diploma thesis (in German) by Florian Völkerer at the University of Vienna in 2018. Its title can be translated as “Playing with Memories. On the Exploitation of the Spanish Armada on 17th Century English Playing Cards.” It is available for download in PDF format here.

Völkerer Playing Card Spanish Armada

Here’s the English abstract from the author:

The thesis deals with a set of english playing cards from 1679 depicting the events of the Spanish Armada. After a number of supplementary investigations it attempts to identify the narrative conveyed by the cards, as well as to address the probable reasons why this narrative was constructed in a specific manner. Main results are that the production and distribution of the cards appears to be closely linked to the english exclusion crisis, during which the cards where part of the anglican propaganda-effort against the catholic James II. The narrative therefore serves as an historical argument in the political debate and is consequently constructed in a distinctly anti-catholic manner. While staying close to the facts for most of the time, it differs from our current knowledge about the Spanish Armada mainly in overemphasizing the impact of the actual fighting (and therefore of the english fleet) on the eventual outcome of the events. Furthermore, the role of individual actors is put into focus, to the extent that the whole campaign appears almost as a personal squabble between Elizabeth I. and the pope. Thereby the historical events are used as an allegorical depiction of the struggle of anglican England against a counter reformatory catholicism led and controlled by the pope, while the depiction of Elizabeth I. serves as a stark contrast to James II. The playing cards investigated in this thesis therefore show exemplary how historical narratives can be shaped and used to construct arguments in contemporary political debates.


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