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Answers to correspondents: When was the 52-card playing deck first used? What game would have been played?


QUESTION When was the 52-card playing deck first used? What game would have been played?

The Cloisters or Flemish Hunting Deck, constitutes the only known complete 52-card deck of cards from the 15th century. The cards originated in the southern Netherlands and feature four suits, each consisting of a king, queen, jack and ten numeral or pip cards.

The suits are not the familiar spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts but are based on equipment associated with the hunt — horns, dog collars, hound tethers and game nooses. The value is indicated by appropriate repetitions of the symbol.

The figures are thought to be based on Burgundian court costume, dating the cards to before 1480. In 1983, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought the set for $143,000 from a wily Dutch antiques dealer who’d purchased it for $2,800 a few years earlier at auction, having noticed that they were much older than their listed 16th-century date.

The Cloisters or Flemish Hunting Deck, constitutes the only known complete 52-card deck of cards from the 15th century

The Cloisters or Flemish Hunting Deck, constitutes the only known complete 52-card deck of cards from the 15th century

The precise game being played with the cards is unknown. It may have been Gleek, a three-player trick-taking game, with elaborate rules, popular throughout the 16th century. The game used a regular deck with the 2s and 3s removed, so there were 44 cards.

There was also Laugh And Lie Down, a five-player ‘fishing game’ in which the player must accumulate pairs. The title refers to the fact that when you can no longer capture any cards you must ‘lay down’ by throwing your hand in — and the other players must laugh at you!

Dr Ian Kenney, Birmingham.

QUESTION Where does the saying ‘down to the wire’ originate?

This idiom describes a situation, often a sporting event, in which the outcome is not known or decided until the very last moment. Before flash photography, horse races in the 1800s used a wire run above the finish line to make it easier to judge which horse’s nose crossed the line first.

An early citation comes from 1884 in Australian newspaper The Southern Argus: ‘At the quarter there was no particular change, but going down the backstretch all closed up, and there was a terrific race round the turn and down to the wire, Soprano, staying the longest, and winning by a neck, amidst uproarious applause.’

Gerry Taylor, Catterick, North Yorksshire.

QUESTION Are inhabitants of Cairo pigeon fanciers?

Further to the earlier answer, pigeons bred for the table in Cairo are not a modern phenomenon.

Among the signature sights of Egypt are the great earthen chimneys that functioned as giant dovecotes.

These can be found towering above the mud brick houses on the periphery of Egyptian villages even today.

Some of these structures are thousands of years old.

Visitors might have eaten the famous hamam mahshi, a stuffed pigeon dish where the birds are filled with rice or freekeh, onions and chopped giblets.

Mrs Ann O’Keefe, Widnes, Cheshire.

Is there a question to which you want to know the answer? Or do you know the answer to a question here? Write to: Charles Legge, Answers To Correspondents, Daily Mail, 9 Derry Street, London W8 5HY; or email charles.legge@dailymail.co.uk. A selection is published, but we’re unable to enter into individual correspondence 



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