Court cards from 15th century Swiss pack.
Karnöffel is the Under of trumps identifiable European card game is first attested in 1426 in a town ordinance of Nördlingen, Bavaria, that permits councillors to play it at the annual festival. Many 15th-century references thereafter chart the game's increasing popularity in southern Germany and provide useful descriptive details. That game was Karnöffel (rhymes approximately with kerfuffle, with N replacing the first F), also known as Kaiserpiel or Ludus Imperatoris, the Kaiser or Emperor's game.
Some details of its nature and specific features appear in two important texts give. One, a substantial poem by Meissner from around 1450, celebrates the game as being popular with both sexes; the other, a sermon of 1496 delivered by Bishop Geiler in Kaiserberg, attacks it for its brazen promotion of a revolutionary social order. From these we learn that it was played with German-suited cards of acorns, leaves, hearts and bells (hawk-bells), and court cards depicting King, Ober and Unter, the last two equivalent to our Queen and Jack, but both male. There is a trump suit, of sorts - actually called "the elected suit" (gewählte Farbe) - of which the highest is the Unter, itself the eponymous Karnöffel. Next highest is the Six, called "the Pope", followed by the Daus or Deuce, the alternatively eponymous "Kaiser". Also significant is the trump Seven, known as "the Devil", which when led can be beaten only by Karnöffel, but otherwise loses, having no power even as a trump.
So what exactly
Jörg Ratgeb: detail from the wing of the Herrenberg Altar depicting the
resurrection, 1517-19 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart). One of the Landsknechte
appears to have a hernia; the cards (enlarged in detail) imply Karnöffel. does Karnöffel mean? Some have sought, not very convincingly I think, to derive it from the Persian Kanjifeh (cf modern Indian Ganjifa), a card game possibly played with the original Mamluk pack from which European cards were copied; others from the French cornifle, the horned pondweed (what's that go to do with it?); yet others connect it with the word carnival. In fact its primary meaning is a scrotal hernia and, by extension in some contexts, the testicles. By further extension it also came to mean a rough, uncouth and violent rogue, thence a Landsknecht or lansquenet, and, later still, satirically, a cardinal of the church. Hardly surprising, then, that bishop Geiler says he would gladly have the whole lot thrown into the bonfire.
Forms of Karnöffel
were being played in Switzerland by the first
decade of the 16th century, in Berlin and Lübeck soon after, Thuringia in the 18th century,
Westphalia in the 19th, and Friesland perhaps beyond the 1920s. Since card-game books did not appear
before about 1650 the rules of
Karnöffel were long considered irrecoverable.
Karnöffel's descendant Bräus is still played in Gotland In the 1970s, however, Dr Rudolf van Leyden (1908-83), a former president of the International Playing Card Society discovered a game that almost exactly fitted its description being played in a few remote valleys of Switzerland under its alternative name Kaiserspiel, or Kaiserjass. Since then, further exploration has opened up a whole family of related games still played throughout northern Europe. They include, besides Kaiserspiel itself: Alkort and its three-player variant Treikort (Iceland), Bräus (Gotland), Stýrivolt (Faroes), Watten (Bavaria), and Vorms (Greenland). Rules for all these games, mostly based on research by Dr Anthony Smith, appear on the Pagat website, and all except Treikort in part 12 of my Penguin Book of Card Games, which is also available as an e-book on Kindle. Also worth mentioning is Karnüfflen, played in North Friesland (the north-western district of Schleswig-Holstein) until the early 20th century.
Karnöffel is as much a game
48-card Swiss's-suited Karnöffel pack, c 1530 of technical as of social significance in that itself and its modern descendants display several distinctive habits. One is that you don't have to follow suit but can always play any card you like. Another is that instead of a trump suit in the usual sense of the word, certain individual cards have special names and act as quasi-trumps, or enjoy particular powers of their own. An amusing feature (though not unique to this family) is the practice, in partnership varieties, of signalling the holding of certain high cards to one's partner by means of codified nods, winks and grimaces, ideally made when the other side is not looking. This does not constitute "organised cheating", as some call it, but is merely a system of conventions, like opening Two Clubs at Bridge to denote a strong hand. Because Karnöffel itself is first mentioned at about the same time as the invention of real trumps, in Tarot games, it may be that some of these features go right back to games played when cards first reached Europe around 1360, and that the invention of trumps may have been inspired by the concept of individual cards with special powers. Which of Tarot and Karnöffel influenced the other, or whether both perpetuated an existing practice, remains at present indeterminable.
As to its social significance,
The Daus (Deuce),
aka die Sau (the
Sow), on a card of
1593 it was so clearly an anarchic game that civic and ecclesiastical authorities often objected to it. Bishop Geiler, as we have seen, saw Karnöffel as the embodiment of that medieval nightmare "the world turned upside down". Ordinary card games, whatever their demerits, at least reflect a sensible social order, with the King superior to the Ober, the Ober to the Unter, and so on. "But now", he complains, "we have a game called Karniffelspiel in which everything is turned upside down: the 3s beat an Ober, the 4 beats the Unter, the 2 and the 6 beat a King; and a card is turned over, so that now one is Kaiser, now another becomes Kaiser, as luck will have it." He would like to burn them all, including "the King, the Kaiser, the Ober, the Banner and the Devil". (The Banner, in Swiss cards, is equivalent to our Ten, though its suit symbol is displayed only once.)
Other references to named cards and disturbed ranking include a satirical work of 1546 in the form of a dialogue between the Pope and the Devil, from which, as Dummett puts it (in The Game of Tarot), "We learn that neither of the Devil and the Pope beats the other; that the Pope beats all the cards, including the Kaiser and the Kings, with the exception of the Karnöffel; that the Karnöffel beats the Pope, the Devil and all other cards; that the Karnöffel is an Unter [that is, the highest card is a Jack]... the 2 beats the King, the Obers and the other Kaisers; and that the 5 is beaten by all other Kaisers, and by the King, Ober, Pope and Karnöffel, but beats only the 10, 9, 8, etc." Karnöffel was evidently enjoyed as a substitute for anarchy, and whether it was forbidden or permitted in various fifteenth-century ordinances obviously hinged more on political perceptions than on the ethics of gambling.
Other variations occur in descriptions of the game from various parts of northern Europe, but its peculiar essence has remained unchanged and undoubtedly dates back to its earliest report. Karnöffel is remarkable for its early display of features common to many later games of different types. The superiority of the Jack of trumps appears in later games like All Fours and Loo, while the aim of winning at least three tricks out of five underlies the whole family of five-card games represented by (for example) Triomphe, Ecarté and Twenty-Five. And, of course, the very fact that the lowest card (2) beats the highest is perpetuated to this day in the superiority of the Ace over the King in nearly all European card games.
The following reconstruction is redacted from the rules of early Karnöffel presented by Michael Dummett in van Leyden's study of the game. I have, however, converted the original suits and courts from early Swiss cards to those of the modern French-suited pack. If you prefer to play with more authentic cards then you should try the current Swiss form of the game, Kaiserspiel, as described on the Pagat website.
|Karnöffel = J||: beats everything|
|Pope = 6||: trumps plain suits|
|Kaiser = 2||: trumps plain suits|
|3||: trumps plain suits but not Kings|
|4||: trumps plain suits but not K, Q|
|5||: trumps plain suits but not K, Q, J|
|K||: no trumping power|
|Q||: no trumping power|
|10||: no trumping power|
|9||: no trumping power|
|8||: no trumping power|
|The Devil = 7||: if led beaten only by Karnöffel, otherwise loses|
With thanks to John McLeod for clarifying some issues and Dan Glimne who sent me the postcard from Gotland.