Andrea Vitali's Essays

The Twelve Words of Truth

A soldier who goes to Mass with a deck of cards in the pocket of his trousers

 

Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013

 

By The Twelve Words of Truth is meant a list created to raise awareness and bring to mind important events in the history of Christianity, a sort of "Biblia Pauperum" [Poor Man’s Bible], as was, originally, the Ladder of the Tarot. The popular traditions of half of Europe remind us of it, both in the form of rhyme and that of narration. Its origin is to be found, of course, in the legend, that one day the Devil, having started a dispute with St. Martin, questioned him about Christian theological concepts, but the Saint beat him because he knew all the answers. The Devil had no choice but to admit his defeat. The themes vary according to place and their respective traditions, while their basic number, twelve, could expand up to fourteen, sixteen or more. Sometimes the sun and the moon are found (to indicate the duality of the universe), and, more consistently, the Magi, the four Evangelists, the twelve apostles, etc.. Recited in the form of a formulaic rhyme it became almost magical and esoteric due to the mystical-sacred value that characterized it.

 

This version of the Twelve Words, focused on playing cards, comes to us from Britanny and is entitled Le jeu des cartes servant de livre de messe [The deck of cards serving as a missal], which follows in all its singularity. The story was picked up by the author (1) in 1847 from a blind beggar named Garandel, at the Old Market in Côtes-du-Nord.

 

[Translator’s note, what follows is a translation of the original French, as given later in the article, rather than of the Italian translation].

 

A soldier of Lower Brittany named Pipin Talduff used to go to Mass every Sunday in the city where his regiment was stationed, far from his country, But as he could neither read nor write, he brought to the church a deck of cards, which took the place of a missal. One Sunday at Mass, his captain, having noticed him holding his deck of cards in his hands, mixing them as though to play, told him to put them in his pocket and stop looking at them. But Pipi took no account and continued to mix his cards as before. After the Mass, the captain said to the disobedient soldier:

 

“For playing cards in church during mass, for eight days you will be consigned to the guardhouse”.
“Will you allow me, sir,” Pipi asked him, “to make my reasons known to you?”
“Speak,” replied the captain.
“I do not know how to read or write, my captain, and these cards, which were given to me by an old soldier, who also taught me how to use them, take the place of the missal”.
“A deck of cards serving as a missal? Explain to me how this can be, please”.
“Here, sir”.
And taking an ace from the deck, he says: “The ace that is here reminds me that there is a God, one God only, creator of heaven and earth".
Then, taking a two and a three: “When I look at a two or a three, I think of the Father and the Son, or the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that is, the Holy Trinity.
The four represents to me the four evangelists Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John.
The five reminds me of the five wise virgins who had to put oil in their lamps and keep them lit until the coming of the Messiah. Ten received the order, but five of them let their lamps go out and were called the five foolish virgins.
The six represents to me the six days of creation.
The seven is the seventh day, Sunday, on which the Creator rested.
The eight is the eight beatitudes, happy above all the poor in spirit!
The nine, nine lepers purified by our Savior. They were ten, but only one thanked him.
The ten reminds me of the Ten Commandments of God.
Now, if I consider the face cards [figures], the kings represent to me the Magi who came from the depths of the East to pay homage to the Lord”.
Then, taking the queen of hearts: “This is the Queen of Sheba, who came from the depths of Asia to admire the wisdom of the great King Solomon.
This one here (the Jack [Valet] of Clubs) is the infamous Servant [valet] who slapped our Lord.
Now, when I consider all the face cards together, I find that there are twelve, and I think of the twelve months of the year.
All the points in the deck together represent to me the 365 days of the year.
When I count the number of cards, I find fifty-two, as there are weeks in the year.
So, as you see, my captain, my cards serve me both as missal and almanac”.
When the soldier had finished his explanation, the captain, who had listened attentively and with interest, said: “Very well, you are an honest fellow, and I lift your punishment”.
And he also gave him a six franc piece and took him as his personal attendant [brosseur].


(Related by the blind beggar Garaudel, of Vieux-Marché, Côtes-du-Nord, in 1847).

 

Original French Version

 

Un soldat bas-breton, nommé Pipi Talduff, allait à la messe, tous les dimanches, dans la ville où son régiment était en garnison, loin de son pays. Mais comme il ne savait ni lire ni écrire, il emportait à l’église un jeu de cartes, qui lui tenait lieu de livre de messe.

 

Un dimanche, à la grand’messe, son capitaine l’ayant remarqué tenant ses cartes à la main et les mêlant, comme pour jouer, lui fit dire de les mettre dans sa poche et de ne plus les faire voir. Mais Pipi n’en tint aucun compte et continua de mêler ses cartes, comme devant. Aussi, la messe terminée, le capitaine dit-il au soldat désobéissant :

 

-  Vous ferez huit jours de salle de police, pour avoir joué aux cartes à l’église, pendant la messe.
-  Me permettez-vous, mon capitaine, lui demanda Pipi, de vous faire connaître mes raisons ?
-  Parlez, lui répondit le capitaine.
-  Je ne sais ni lire ni écrire, mon capitaine, et ces cartes, qui m’ont été données par un vieux soldat, lequel m'a aussi appris à m’en servir, me tiennent lieu de livre de messe.
-  Un jeu de cartes servir de livre de messe Expliquez-moi comment cela peut être, je vous prie.
-  Voici, mon capitaine.
Et prenant un as dans le jeu : - L’as, que voici, me rappelle qu’il y a un Dieu, un Dieu unique, créateur du ciel et de la terre.
Puis, prenant un deux et un trois : - Quand je regarde un deux ou un trois, je songe au Père et au Fils, ou au Père, au Fils et au Saint-Esprit, c’est-à-dire à la sainte Trinité.
Le quatre me représente les quatre évangélistes, Marc, Luc, Mathieu et Jean.
Le cinq me rappelle les cinq vierges sages, qui devaient mettre de l’huile dans leurs lampes et les tenir allumées jusqu’à la venue du Messie. Dix e, avaient reçu l’ordre ; mais cinq d’entre elles laissèrent s’éteindre leurs lampes et furent appelées les cinq vierges folles.
Le six me représente les six jours de la création.
Le sept, c’est le septième jour, le dimanche, où le Créateur se reposa.
Le huit, c’est les huit béatitudes ; - heureux surtout les pauvres d’esprit !
Le neuf, les neuf lépreux purifiés par notre Sauveur. Ils étaient dix, mais un seul le remercia.
Le dix, les dix commandements de Dieu.
Maintenant, si je considère les figures, les rois me représentent les rois mages, venus du fond de l’Orient pour rendre hommage au Seigneur.
Puis prenant la reine de cœur : voici la reine de Saba, qui vint du fond de l’Asie pour admirer la sagesse du grand roi Salomon
Celui-ci le (valet de trèfle), c’est le valet infâme qui souffleta Notre-Seigneur.
Maintenant, quand je considère toutes les figures ensemble, je trouve qu’il y en a douze, et je songe aux douze mois de l’année.
Tous les points du jeu réunis me représentent les 365 jours de l’année.
Quand je compte le nombre des cartes, j’en trouve cinquante-deux, autant qu’il y a de semaines dans l’année.
Ainsi, comme vous le voyez, mon capitaine, mes cartes me servent à la fois de livre de messe et d’almanach.
Quand le soldat eut terminé son explication, le capitaine, qui l’avait écouté attentivement et avec intérêt, lui dit : - C’est bien ; vous êtes un honnête garçon, et je lève votre punition.
Et il lui donna encore une pièce de six francs et le prit pour son brosseur.

 
(Conté par le mendiant aveugle Garandel, du Vieux-Marché, Côtes-du-Nord, en 1847)

 

Notes

 

1 - F. M. Luzel, Le jeu de cartes servant de livre de messe, in "Ligendes chrétiennes de la Basse-Bretagne" [Deck of cards serving as a missal], in "Christian Legends of Lower Brittany", 1881, Vol. II, Part Seven, "Récits divers" [Various accounts], pp. 231-234.