Grounded Speculation, or Divining the Past

Tarot cards are well-known tools for divining the future: why not use them for the past?

The idea might sound strange, but I want to suggest a rigourous and legitimate method of using the Tarot to answer questions about the past.

Whenever historians talk about creative methods, imagination is one of the first that comes to mind. How much licence can we allow ourselves to guess about things we cannot know? Given that the past comes to us in such incomplete form, what are the best ways to produce grounded speculation?

Academic histories can be cagey about this, although there are examples of more open-minded approaches.[1] Just this week I really enjoyed reading The Convict’s Daughter, and hearing Keira Lindsey talk about how she conceives of ‘creative histories’.

In general, though, novelists have tended to engage more directly with the issue. It is, for instance, the central plank of how Hilary Mantel has talked in her Reith Lectures(and elsewhere, such as the introduction to A Place of Greater Safety) of the division between historian and novelist: where the facts leave off, the novelist begins.

What if there were agreed standards for grounded speculation in academic histories?

Keira Lindsey writes (and talked) eloquently about what these standards might be. She uses comparable stories from folklore and from newspaper stories, as well as the conventions of contemporary literature to speculate about what might have happened offstage, in those areas for which she as a historian has no sources. And in doing this she has a focus on period-specific codes of behaviour and expectation, a sense that people in the past were psychologically different from us, and their motivations and experiences were shaped differently.

A wealth of evidence suggest past subjectivities were shaped by popular literature, newspapers, and folklore. And a wealth of scholarship has been devoted to showing how these different cultural forms were performed and interpreted.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about another source of self-construction, and one that has received a lot less dedicated attention from historians: the Tarot.

I don’t care whether or not you think the Tarot works.

The point that interests me is that many people involved in the witchcraft cases I’m studying did take an interest in fortune-telling by cards. In particular, in over sixty cases I have seen, cards[2] were mentioned as a way to reverse witchcraft, or to lift bad spells.

Whether or not they had a straightforward belief in the truthfulness of this divination, many different people shared understandings of structures of meaning organised around the cards. To take the most uncontroversial example, many of these cases mention associating the red suits (or cups and coins in some Tarot) with the good, and the black suits (or staves and swords in some Tarot) with evil.

What this suggests to a historian interested in using the Tarot for grounded speculation is that cartomancers and their clients often structured their understanding of the world in these stark, Manichean terms.

But the Tarot can get much more specific and definite.

It is true that many historical accounts of Tarot symbolism have tended to focus on what elite occultists have had to say about the cards, even though these interpretations are known to be very distant both from the origins of the symbolism of the cards, and how most cartomancers would have used them. A book like the-late nineteenth-century The Tarot of the Bohemians by Papus (a.k.a. Gérard Encausse), for instance, self-consciously distinguishes its own esoteric interpretation of the cards from ‘popular’ confusion and error.

But as a historian more interested in how lots of people would have understood the cards, there are plenty of sources at my disposal, books like The Perfect Oracle, or A Woman’s Pastime, or How to Read Cards (L’Oracle parfait, ou le passe-temps des dames, ou l’art de tirer les cartes), or the popular fortune-telling manual The Bloody Crow(Le Corbeau sanglant) by Madame Clément.

Much as historians sometimes use contemporary novels or contemporary psychological theories to  structure our understandings of past behaviour, there is rigour in using the contemporary symbolic structures of specific Tarot practices to illuminate the cases we are  looking at  on the project.

This week, we tried it.

We put a simple question to the cards, and use them to break the normal flow of time, to find out the now forgotten outcome of a past mystery: who was breaking the crockery on the rue Violet?

Yesterday, on rue Violet, a considerable gathering could be found outside the fruit merchants run by the B…, at no. 33.
Having been informed of this gathering, the police superintendent visited the premises and questioned the fruit merchant as to what could have brought so many people to his establishment. M. B… and his wife told the officer that witches had installed themselves in their cupboard, and that, not content with taking a small case of valuables, had amused themselves by breaking their crockery during the night. The superintendent initially thought the couple must be mad, but was soon convinced that the B… were reporting these facts in good faith.
These good people are rather gullible and would, had not various individuals intervened, have gone to the Church to find a priest to come and exorcise the evil spirits.
Perhaps the real evil spirits were the neighbours making fun of M. and Mme B…’s credulity.[3]


We use a specific method. It is based on the description of a Tarot reading by the unwitcher Madame Flora in Jeanne Favret-Saada’s book about twentieth-century witchcraft, The Anti-witch.

We, like Madame Flora, shuffle repeatedly and then let the inquirer cut.

Next, we spread the cards on the table: twelve in a semi-circle, face down, then six more on top of those, also face down. We then count round the cards, turning over every fifth to represent first the inquirer, then the inquirer’s partner. As we turn the cards, we develop a story, as each card conveys not just individual meanings, but builds a web of relations to the other cards.[4]

We write about the cards.

This is how I interpreted the Nine of Clubs (see the illustration above), drawing on readings about nineteenth- and twentieth-century Tarot interpretation, and on my imagination, my understanding of what the visual symbols on the card mean:

It is a bad card, a sign of evil. But is it too late to avert the harm? The flowers signify “Passing happiness. Disappointments.” I surmise that the grocers have known happier times. Something has gone wrong recently and this card helps us to guess what it is. But only if we look closely at the details. Perhaps all is not as it seems?

9 of clubsThe many-headed monster is all of the different clients that the grocers are struggling with. It’s an unwinnable battle.

The monster is not real, of course. Monsters don’t exist, but the figure of the money lender in the bottom right gives an idea of what this ‘monster’ really is: some kind of financial pressure.

But what is this in the bottom left of the main picture? All of the hero’s effort is focused on the obvious monster, and what they do not notice is the sly crustacean! That is where the real danger lies. While they fight an open battle with a visible monster, it is only by looking down, by noticing someone less conspicuous they can be saved. I wonder who is this man in the bottom left who seems to be dressed as a foreigner, and leaning on a table? This makes me wonder, is the danger close at hand, or is it coming from abroad?

I will be the first to admit this does not answer the question of who was breaking the crockery, or who was causing the supernatural disturbance.

But the experiment was not a failure. It might not tell me who the culprit was, but it has encouraged me to think in much greater depth about how the grocers themselves might have thought about what happened, if they had consulted a fortune-teller like Madame Flora.

Still, I’m not giving up the day job.

[1]Not always. A book like Keith Hopkins A World Full of Gods, for instance, uses a self-conscious fiction – time-travellers – to grapple with some of the experiential dimensions of the world of the Roman Empire during early Christianity. And I am often drawn back to the ways that microhistorians including Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg both used and theorized speculation.

[2]The key problem in many cases is working out which cards were being used. That is another post…

[3]La Lanterne 26.09.1877 (trans. Hayley Wood)

[4]Favret-Saada, The Anti-witch, 50-1.

One thought on “Grounded Speculation, or Divining the Past

  1. I had another thought about this: what place is there in rigorous historical methods for deliberate randomness? Because of course one of the things about Tarot methods is that they are meant to rely on how the cards fall. We could put the same question to the cards over and over again and never get the same answer. I suspect that for many historians this proves that the method is not rigorous: the results are not replicable.

    But I find it interesting that the Tarot method is at least direct about the role of randomness (or fate). Does using methods that draw attention to chance help us to think about historical contingency?


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