Historic Card Games described by David Parlett



"The curse of Scotland"

Origins, relatives, and how to play it

Pope Joan board
Victorian Pope Joan board, modern cards

Pope Joan was a popular Victorian game of the Stops type, which puts it in line of descent from the 16th century game of Hoc, the 17th century game of Comet, and the modern game of Newmarket (UK) and Michigan (US).

More specifically, it is the English equivalent of the 18th century French game of Nain Jaune, or Yellow Dwarf. How it came to be named after a legendary female Pope of the ninth century is uncertain. Perhaps Nain Jaune was misinterpreted as "Nun Joan" and then turned into something more meaningful.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a reference to the game from as early as 1732, though it doesn't seem to have come into its own for nearly another hundred years, first reaching the pages of Hoyle in 1826.

Pope Joan soon acquired the character of a mild and homely gambling game for all the family, especially that of clergymen:

I cannot condemn the Vicar of Broad Hembury for relaxing now and then among a few select friends with a rubber of sixpenny Whist, a pool of penny Quadrille, or a few rounds of twopenny Pope-Joan...

wrote Augustus Toplady (Vicar of Broad Hembury), towards the end of the eighteenth century. (Quoted by "Cavendish", from a letter reported in Polwhele's Reminiscences, 1773).

Pope Joan also figures prominently in the "old-fashioned card party" depicted in Chapter 6 of The Pickwick Papers (1836-7):

Isabella Wardle and Mr Trundle "went partners", and Emily Wardle and Mr Snodgrass did the same; and even Mr Tupman and the spinster aunt established a joint-stock company of fish and flattery... Then when the spinster aunt got "matrimony", the young ladies laughed afresh...

("Fish" = fish-shaped gaming counters.)

Part of the game's popularity must have been due to the distinctively designed circular and revolving board containing labelled compartments for the staking eventualities of the game, as well as storage for the fish (or chips) when not in use. The picture shot for the dust jacket of the first ediion of my Penguin Book of Card Gamesused above shows such a board from my collection of card-playing equipment looking somewhat out of place with the modern plastic counters and Poker cards. It is made of wood, and has a lacquered finish. For all practical purposes, of course, you can one simply rule a sheet of paper up into eight sections and label them appropriately.

Another noteworthy feature of the game is the significance attaching to the Nine of diamonds, a card referred to in this game as 'Pope' but better known in English literature and folklore as "the Curse of Scotland". Of the many explanations offered for this intriguing nomenclature, perhaps the most amusing is the suggestion that it was so called because "The crown of Scotland contained only nine stones, as they never could afford a tenth". (Quoted, with other explanations, by Gurney Benham, p.156).

On the last day of 2006, Charles MacGregor, of MacGregor Historic Games, posted the following message on the card games mailing group:

I recently ran across an [Ebay] auction of a page from a periodical that describes a midsummer festival that seems to have included a life size representation of a Pope Joan card game. It sounds like it may have been just a one-time pageant that was performed as part of a fund raiser for the local vicarage, and not part of some tradition connected to the game. Here is the text that appeared below the illustration that the Ebay seller was kind enough to share with me:
"A revival of some midsummer games was held at Ealing on June 5, 6, and 7 in aid of the new vicarage building fund. The most interesting feature, perhaps, was the living representation of "Pope Joan." This somewhat old-fashioned round game, one of the best for Christmas and family gathering was illustrated by a series of dances and movements representing as far as possible the shuffling, cutting and dealing of the cards and the games as it might be played by eight players. Diamonds are trumps, and the Knave of hearts represents intrigue, the Queen of Hearts matrimony. Pope is, of course, the nine of diamonds. The spare hand, usually dealt to form additional stops to the natural ones, is placed in the centre of the board. As there are eight players, the cards unrepresented are the twos and threes of each suit, with the exception of the three of hearts, which is included with the other cards. The whole spectacle was designed and conducted by a local resident."
uplink downlink HOW TO PLAY
From three to eight players use a basically 52-card pack from which the diamond8 has been removed. The sequential order of cards is A2345678910JQK. Also required is a staking-board (or equivalent layout) exhibiting eight compartments labelled Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Pope (diamond9), Matrimony (trump K + Q), and Intrigue (trump Q + J). Each player should start with at least 20 chips or counters.
Decide who deals first by any agreed means. Thereafter, the turn to deal passes to the left. Dealer starts by dressing the board with six counters to Pope, two each to Matrimony and Intrigue, and one to each other compartment. Dealer then deals all the cards round one at a time to one more hand than there are players, the dead hand remaining unrevealed throughout play. It doesn't matter if some have more cards than others.
The last card dealt is shown to establish a "trump" suit. If it is an Ace, King, Queen or Jack, or "Pope" (diamond9), dealer sweeps the stakes of the appropriate compartment (regardless of whom the last card was dealt to). Variant. For turning Pope, dealer also wins the stake for "Game", the cards are gathered up without play, the board is further dressed, and the deal passes on.
To win counters by playing out cards corresponding to the labelled compartments, and to be the first to run out of cards.
Eldest leads by playing to the table the lowest card he or she holds of any desired suit (Ace is always low). Whoever holds the next higher card of the same suit plays it next, the holder of its immediate successor does likewise, and so on until a stop is reached.
A stop is any King, as there is no higher card to follow it, or any card that no one can follow because the next in sequence is in the dead hand, or (later in the game) because it has already been played. Whoever plays a stop then starts the game going again by continues by playing the lowest card he holds of any suit he pleases. Variant. The new suit must differ from that of the stop.
Whoever plays the Ace, King, Queen or Jack of trumps, or Pope, immediately wins the counters in the appropriate compartment.
Anyone playing both Jack and Queen of trumps in succession wins the contents of Intrigue; for similarly playing the Queen and King of trumps they win Matrimony; and for similarly playing Jack, Queen and King of Trumps they win both. Variant. If the two cards are played from different hands, the stake is divided between them.
Play stops as soon as somebody wins by playing the last card from their hand. The winner takes the contents of Game, plus as many counters from each opponent as they have unplayed cards left in hand, except that the holder of Pope unplayed is excused payment. (Or, variant, pays double).
Unclaimed stakes are carried forward to the next deal, making it possible for large quantities to build up on Matrimony and Intrigue.
uplink downlink ACCORDING TO HOYLE
Rules from Hoyle's Games, London 1847

Pope, a game somewhat similar to that of Matrimony, [...], is played by a numerous party, who generally use a board painted for the purpose, which may be purchased at most turners' or toy-shops.

The eight of diamonds must first be taken from the pack, and after settling the deal, shuffling, &c., the dealer dresses the board by putting fish, counters, or other stakes, one each to ace, king, queen, knave, and game, two to matrimony, two to intrigue, and six to the nine of diamonds, styled pope. This dressing is, in some companies, at the individual expense of the dealer, though in others the players contribute two stakes a-piece towards it. The cards are next to be dealt equally round to every player, one turned up for trump, and about six or eight left in the stock to form stops; as for example, if the ten of spades be turned up, the nine consequently becomes a stop; the four kings and the seven of diamonds are always fixed stops, and the dealer is the only person permitted in the course of the game to refer occasionally to the stock for information what other cards are stops in the deal. If the trump turned up should be an ace, a king, a queen, or a knave, the dealer takes whatever is deposited on such card in the board; but when pope is turned up, he is entitled both to that and the game, besides a stake for every card dealt to each player. Unless the game be thus determined by pope being turned up, the eldest-hand begins by playing out as many cards as possible; first the stops, then pope, if he have it, and afterwards the lowest card of his longest suit, particularly an ace, for that never can be led to; the other players are to follow in sequence of the same suit, if they can, till a stop occurs, when the party having the stop thereby becomes eldest-hand, and is to lead accordingly, and the play goes on, until some one has parted with all his cards, by which he wins the game, and becomes entitled besides to a stake for every card not played by the others, the person excepted who may hold pope, which excuses him from paying; but if pope have been played, then the party having held it is not excused. King and queen form what is denominated Matrimony, and queen and knave, Intrigue, when in the same hand; but neither they, nor see, king, queen, knave, or pope, entitle the holder to the stakes deposited thereon, unless played out, and no claim can be allowed after the board is dressed for the succeeding deal: in all such cases the stakes are to remain for future determination.

This game only requires a little attention, to recollect what stops have been made in the course of it; as for instance, if a player begin by laying down the eight of clubs, then the seven in another hand forms a stop, whenever that suit is led from any lower card, or the holder, when eldest, may safely lay it down in order to clear his hand.

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