Early English Cartomancy & Cold Reading

Cutting the cards for the big reveal, way back in the early 18th-century (or maybe 17th-century) day. As always, mainly women were attracted to this use of playing cards, men worshipped Fortune at the gambling tables.

I have for many years now been seeking out and reporting about early uses of playing cards and Tarot cards for magical and divinatory purposes. There has generally been the view that cartomancy, fortunetelling using playing cards, was at the earliest a mid-18th-century development, at least in the modern understanding of cartomancy, involving card layouts with multiple cards and a mixture of meanings read as a kind of narrative to answer a question.

Another kind of cartomancy, which seems to have led to this more complex style, was basically a one-card draw affair, where the deck would be shuffled, and cut, and a card drawn to answer a particular question. The answer would be located in a chapbook of card meanings, and what is interesting is that many of these have long traditions traceable even back to the early 16th-century chapbooks, which were originally written for use with dice, but were also converted for use with playing cards.

By the early 18th century, there were many fortunetelling books, but almost none that have been discovered that explicitly mention methods for fortunetelling with playing cards. By the latter part of the century, after the publication of the fortunetelling guides of Etteilla, and the Tarot essays of Antoine Court de G├ębelin, cartomancy was regularly included as a method of fortunetelling in divination books.

However, in England we do know that there was some kind of tradition of cartomancy being taught and practiced in the early part of the 18th century. We know this from mentions made of methods of cartomancy in a few literary works, often as part of critical commentaries, aimed at attacking fortunetelling in general and cartomancy particularly, and which in one case actually gives us an early description of "cold reading" in the 18th century, a problem already well understood as the practice of swindlers three centuries ago. Indeed, what is most interesting perhaps about these early mentions of cartomancy is how one gets the feeling that very little has changed with respect to the roles of the players, and the game.

This is particularly true respecting one particular aspect of cartomancy, the tendency for it to be sought out as a remedy chiefly by women, and for it often to be an art (of real or faked readings) chiefly practiced by women.

In this posting, I want to concentrate on one critical mention of cartomancy, in the work of the famous 18th-century writer, Eliza Fowler Haywood. For two years, 1744-1746, Haywood published The Female Spectator, a four-volume periodical aimed at providing women, particularly of an elite social position, wisdom and practical advice at the art of living—particularly as a woman in a time when women had limited political or social power. A recurring feature of Haywood's philosophy was that women needed to give men as little ammunition as possible in their natural tendency to view women as hysterical creatures, incapable of any sustained or habitual rational thought.

"...and some there are, who, on cutting a pack of cards, and afterwards spreading them on a table, present you with love, marriage, law-suits, deaths, and what not."

In line with this view, Haywood was disturbed to see so many women, even women of a certain social "condition", going to fortunetellers. She lists, in Book XI of The Female Spectator some of the divinatory methods that were popular at this time (again, mid-1740's);
I cannot here avoid taking notice...of that ridiculous curiosity, so many especially among my own sex, are possessed of, for the fore-knowledge of events; and the yet more ridiculous faith they put in those who impudently pretend to be acquainted with the decrees of fate.

Not only the dealers in astrology, who may be supposed to have taken some little pains to attain the art of deceiving, but numbers of poor ignorant creatures in this town, who cannot read a letter in a book, pretend to read, in the dregs left in the bottom of a coffee-cup, whatever shall befall the person that consults them.

Others again, who affect to be more delicate and cleanly, have found a way to make fortune dance in a circle of powder-blue and water; and some there are, who, on cutting a pack of cards, and afterwards spreading them on a table, present you with love, marriage, law-suits, deaths, and what not.
Haywood was not inclined to spare the rod of contempt in her critiques:
Would a woman of condition but reflect how ridiculous a figure she makes, while condescending to sit by the side of one of these creatures, and listening to every thing she says as to an oracle, sure she would blush to death.
And then, cutting to the real root of the attraction and problem, Haywood gives a nice capsule description of the technique of cold reading, and how it enabled fortunetellers to make admiring fools of their clients:
But this throwing aside all just distinction is, by much, the least part of the evil that attends having any thing to do with fortune-tellers:—they, for the most part, by telling you such things as are common to every body, and therefore cannot but be true, work you into such an opinion of their skill, that you depend on what is most incredible; and sometimes by their hints, seemingly significant nods, winks, and half sentences, draw from you your dearest secrets, which they never fail to make their own advantages of, though to your utter ruin.
We are learning much more about early 18th-century cartomancy, how it was practiced and particularly how it was viewed and often attacked by authorities in much the same way it is often attacked today, as a practice naturally employed by petty criminals to defraud weak minds. Certainly, the weakest of minds still do seem to obtain ready employment in Tarotmania, as "marks", and minds only a little stronger often take the job of the self-deluding guide (or card reader) to these ruin-seekers.