Author Tracy Falbe is on a blog tour for her new book, Werelord Thal, all about werewolves in the Renaissance! Tracy stopped by to explain something that she researched for the book, a card game called primero.
Printing is always cited as a pillar of the Renaissance because it vastly increased the production of books. But printing technology also contributed to the manufacturing of cards. Various types of card decks and games became popular throughout Europe. Primero is one example. Originating in Italy, the game is considered a precursor to poker.
Primero was played with a deck that would be familiar to modern card players with face cards and aces, but primero is played without using the 8s, 9s, or 10s.
Each player gets four cards. These are the specific types of hands in rank order from highest to lowest:
Chorus – four of a kind
Fluxus – all four cards are suited
Maximus – suited ace, 6, and 7 (also known as a supremus)
Primero – each card is a different suit
Numerus – two or three cards are suited
In addition to types of ranking hands, each hand has a score based on this system:
– Face cards equal 10
– 2s through 5s equal 10 + card’s value, i.e. a 3 card equals 13 points
– Aces equal 16
– 6s and 7s equal three times their value, 18 and 21 respectively
This scoring determines the winner of a hand even if no players achieve a specific type of hand like a fluxus or primero. Also the scoring breaks ties when players have the same type of hand. For example if two players have a maximus, then the scoring of the fourth card that does not contribute to the maximus would be the tie breaker.
Game play consisted of bidding, in which someone would declare the value of his or her hand, staking, which is wagering on a hand, and passing, which meant a player could trade in one or two cards for new ones.
My research gets a little muddled concerning the mechanics of the game play. There were many variations by region, which is common with card games. Also there are not many surviving primary historical sources for game rules.
What is well known is that cards became quite popular during the Renaissance. Printing with color wood blocks and stenciling increased production of standard decks that allowed people to share games across regions. In some places cards and their associated gambling were outlawed. A decree of Henry VII of England in the late 15th century forbade playing cards by servants except on Christmas.
Such official disapproval was probably prompted by widespread card playing among the lower classes. Printing made cards very popular with all levels of society because of cheaper production. Previously the hand painted decks of the Middle Ages had made cards a game for the wealthy. Women also enjoyed cards. Card games of mixed company are shown in art as well as mentioned by Desiderius Erasmus in 1529 “Girls today…take up dice, cards and other masculine amusements.”
In my novel Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale I depict Thal playing primero for money. I chose primero because it was a historically accurate choice for his time and region. The story is set in 1561 Bohemia.
Admittedly I gloss over most of the details of the game in the novel. I decided that attempting to explain the rules would be tedious and take away from the action of the scene that was focused on what was being bet and who won. (Thal bets his enchanted wolf fur for a chance to win a pistol.)
Thal takes up gambling at cards because it is a way for him to make money. As a werewolf he has the advantage of being able to read people’s moods even if they’re hiding them. This power is based on the notion that you can’t lie to a dog. His perception gives him the ability to bet aggressively or drop out of a hand based on the feelings of other players. Primero comes across as fairly poker-like in the novel. I’m comfortable with the liberties I’ve taken with the game in the story. History can’t say how every single card game was played in each place, and primero provided a situational tool to create a dramatic scene.
Thal is wanted for Devil worship and shape shifting but still boldly walks the streets of 16th century Prague. Jesuits hunt him. Mercenaries fear him. Musicians sing his praise, and women are captivated by his alpha swagger.
Born of a witch and a sorcerer, he is summoned when his desperate mother casts the werewolf spell before facing torture and execution. Burdened with her magical call for vengeance Thal seeks the men that killed her. His hunt is complicated when the Magistrate’s stepdaughter Altea Kardas crosses his path. Horrified that her community is burning women to death, she can confide her doubt and fear only to Thal.
He desires her greatly but knows he will bring ruin upon her. Across Bohemia and beyond people who are different are labeled heretics in a restless world hobbled by tyrannical ignorance. The Renaissance has thrown the Holy Roman Empire into turmoil. Printed books are spreading radical ideas. Firearms are triggering a new age of warfare. And the human spirit is shaking off obedience.
Thal embodies the ancient magic of the pagan past. He challenges a world conquered by a spiritual system that denies the flesh and forgets the Earth. And he awakens within Altea recognition of these truths. She believes any risk is worth loving him until she becomes the bait in a trap set by Thal’s enemies.
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