“The originality of this extremely elegant tarot resides in its age and unusually small size. It is the oldest known tarot of the popular ‘Marseille’ tradition. The only existing Noblet, preserved in the Biliotheque Nationale in Paris, is nearly complete: only the six through the ten of swords are missing. Its design, while conforming to the ‘Marseille style’, is original. Specialists, and all who enjoy significant details, will find numerous features worth examining.” – From the booklet
TdM enthusiasts, rejoice! Exquisitely and faithfully reproduced by Jean-Claude Flornoy, the Jean Noblet Tarot (c. 1650) is now available for the first time in 350 years!
I had a chance to ask Roxanne Flornoy some questions about this lovely reproduction, so this post will be part review, part interview.
Before I received the deck from France, one of the first questions I asked Roxanne was “Will this deck have 78 cards--or just the 73?”
She writes, “The missing pips were re-created after careful scrutiny of the other cards' graphic "development" and after comparing it with Dodal, Vieville, Conver and whoever else was floating around in the general epoch. I wonder if even Mr. Noblet himself would recognize them as not being "his". Fortunately, very fortunately, there are no "face" cards missing in the original. One of the knights' horses seems to have part of his harness forgotten by the person who did the stenciling so long ago, but since the original (there's only one) left those spaces uncolored, so did we. It must be remarked that the workshops at the time didn't seem to set much store by careful coloring. I stencil the Dodal majors we produce, and I dare say the pursuit of precision verges on the fanatical!”
So for you Tarot de Marseille lovers who are familiar with the “missing cards”, let me assure that six through the ten of Swords look right at home with the rest of the Sword pips!
Measuring 3-3/4 x 2-3/8 inches with fully reversible backings, the Jean Noblet contains all 78 cards which have an ecru background—very much in keeping with the coloring of the paper of 1650 (which is, by now, completely yellow).
Regarding the other colors used in this deck, the booklet (should I use LEB since it would technically be the Little Ecru Book? *grin*), says that the Jean Noblet employs seven symbolic colors based on a traditional verse:
White, the tears of Maitre Jacques
Black, the earth which bore him
Red, the blood he shed
Blue, the blows he suffered
The “subliminal messages” conveyed by this coloring (very much on the minds of image makers, incidentally) are joined by two additional colors: light blue and flesh colored. The booklet provides metaphysical insights into these color choices, as well as Flornoy`s text “The Journey of the Soul". Meanings are provided for the Major Arcana, but not for the Minors. The booklet cites a 1650 text about the Ace through 10: “…These bear no small resemblance to the dregs of society, people who are much more a burden than a pleasure”. “In other words”, says the LEB, “they aren’t of much use in the tarot” (although I’m sure many would disagree!)
There are many striking images in the Jean Noblet tarot, not in the least the missing “fingers” of the Bateleur (French for “tight-rope walker” or “acrobat”, this is the name for the Magician in the Noblet deck). And is he “holding” what I *think* he is?! This is what Roxanne had to say when I asked her about the Bateleur:
Ah, the Bateleur's "finger"! So much ink has been spilled over this question. In the "Journey of the Soul" text accompanying the deck, Jean-Claude skirts the question by saying the Bateleur traditionally holds a wand, showing him as a magician and sleight-of-hand artist, ready to create his own future. This is the traditional object - quite right. But Noblet seems to be illustrating a dismembered penis. There wasn't space for treating that question in the booklet—Jean-Claude explains his idea about the image on his site…
He feels there is little chance of an "occult" meaning to this "non-traditional" wand. He thinks the source of this "gesture" on the part of the Bateleur lies in the fiscal conditions card-makers had to endure at the time. Below is a section from the Viéville part of my site, which resumes the situation:
‘In the middle of the 17th century, a sort of war was raging between tax collectors and card-makers. At that time, taxes on cards represented a very high percentage of state revenue, even more than the "gabelle" being levied on salt. Everyone, people of all classes, played and bet on everything. Wagers of all kinds had been the rage for centuries. At that time, Paris (composed of what is today only 6 arrondissements) had 4,000 gaming rooms. Cards were fragile, often discarded, and therefore represented an important market. To keep a better watch over them, card-makers were confined to a certain area of each town. They were under permanent surveillance by the police and tax agents. Workers were hand-picked and required to carry a pass.
The sheets of paper to be printed each day were counted by a bailiff before he brought them to the workshop. To prevent any smuggling of undeclared cards, the authorities had all the old wooden printing blocks erased. Armed with planes, the police invaded all card-makers' ateliers on the same day. Everything had to be done over. To locate artisans capable of re-engraving ordinary playing cards was not too difficult. Finding expert engravers of tarot cards, however, was no easy task.’
So here we can easily imagine Mr Noblet, furious at being yet again and even more harassed by the authorities. So, when he had to start over with his wood engravings (a long and arduous task) his first thought/gesture was in "honor" of these government agents. Jean-Claude believes that the first L in LLBateleur was Noblet's way of saying "I am a master, and place the sign of the L-square (a compagnon "trademark") to indicate that here I have added a variant or personal expression, as master, to the traditional image and that I take responsibility for doing so." Or something of the sort. Noblet puts another L-square at Temperance, to indicate that here he chose to alter the proportions of the figure. Such a small head: energies are circulating, but consciousness has yet to become fully part of the picture.
So, that's what I can tell you about the Bateleur's fingers. Of course, little is known for sure. What appeals to me about Jean-Claude's analysis is that it resonates common sense and spares us getting way out there in kilometers of scrutiny of a detail, which I fear is awfully banal. That Noblet chose to put it on the first card suggests that he was a fairly fearless, fed-up person. It refers to his work conditions, and is more an expression of the man himself than of his vision of the Tarot.
After a while, we feel fairly encumbered by this detail, because everyone evokes it, which isn't surprising. But, in the big picture, Jean-Claude feels it has no importance.”
The 64-page Little Ecru Book conveys other intriguing (albeit limited) information about the Trumps—details I found utterly fascinating. For example, it has never occurred to me that The Empress greases the proverbial wheels of economy by circulating money. And I didn’t realize that The Papess is the “grandmother” and it was customary in medieval times for a child to first learn at HER knee because of child mortality rates—and then on to the other familial models.
And did you know that The Wheel was an instrument of torture, which could by symbolic of the pulveration of the personality? And the lady in the Force card (i.e. Strength)? She tackles not a lion in the Jean Noblet Tarot, but a bear!
The 22 Trumps are likened to a “geographical map which describes the inner landscape and itinerary of each being over the five phases of existence: childhood, apprenticeship, compagnonnage (journeyman), master and wisdom." (You can learn more about these stages here.) The compagnonnage and master stages are particularly eloquent in the booklet. I love this portion about the Death card: “The individual must retrieve from the depths of his inner graveyard the separated or broken pieces and reassemble them” and this from the Tower card: “The multitude of past experience and memories suddenly rearrange themselves into an orderly, meaningful constellation. It is a dazzling experience of fusion with the divine, appropriately named the House of God.”
Le Fou, also known as the “Idiot Buddha” (and Fool), seems to have an unusual creature with webbed feet nipping at his--er, apparatus. I asked Roxanne about this peculiar gray animal (as well as the Fou getting caught with his pants down!). She replied:
Now the dog in Noblet rather seems to be a sort of cat. The dog seems to have been put in its place in later fantasy tarots. Old TdMs depict a cat, but Noblet's cat is indeed bizarre. Jean-Claude ran across some information (when? where?) saying that though the cat was brought to France by returning Crusaders, it more or less died out for a time (hunted down as being a sorcerer's ally, among other things) and was replaced by the civet.
Now, the civet looks rather cat-like, can be grey with stripes as is Noblet's animal is carniverous (loves fruit too) and is semi-aquatic (some species, anyway). I didn't find any descriptions of this animal that went so far as to say he had webbed feet, however (and we do seem to see them on the card). The civet was easy to capture and tame, but doesn't reproduce well in captivity. Where they were plentiful (in North Africa?); when one died, they simply captured another one. That he didn't proliferate in captivity left room for the return of the cat, who as we know excels in this respect. I've tried to find documentary confirmation for all of this, and did of course locate some "facts" but really nothing you could call academically viable. Perhaps Noblet really meant a civet, and accentuated that intention by suggesting that he was a good swimmer?
As for the Fou caught with his pants down, in the LWB text concerning the majors Jean-Claude discusses this card - as much as space will allow—evoking how the Fou, even though he is somehow totally elsewhere, is reminded of the fact that he has a body and physical ties, heat and humor.
Tarot enthusiasts who love the TdM-style decks, as well as art deck collectors, will no doubt be thrilled with the Jean Noblet Tarot. It’s exciting to have a piece of history, which is exactly how I feel when I handle this lovely, faithful reproduction by Jean-Claude Flornoy, cartier-enlumineur.
Below are 12 images from this deck:
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