Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil’s Bedpost

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 12, 2011

Back in 1392, King Charles VI of France listed playing cards as a household expense. By 1397, there was an edict prohibiting people from playing certain games on working days.  What’s even more interesting is that specific cards are mentioned in the edict.  For centuries now, some cards have enjoyed alternate names, including, but not limited to the Four of Hearts (Hob Collingwood), the Ace of Diamonds (Earl of Cork), the Nine of Diamonds (Curse of Scotland), the Six of Hearts (Grace card), the Queen of Clubs (Queen Bess), the Four of Spades (Ned Stokes) and the Jack of Clubs (a Sunderland Fitter).

When cards were first printed, back in the 1430s, the standard suits were Hearts (Herz/Rot), Bells (Schellen), Leaves (Grün), and Acorns (Eichel).  In fact, to this day, these cards can still be found in Eastern and Southeastern German decks today for such games as Skat, Scharfkopf and Doppelkopf.  However, the four suits most commonly used in most of the world today originated in French around 1480.  By the 16th century, the standard design in England is the one we know today as a deck of playing cards.

But it’s the Four of Spades that’s known as the “Devil’s bedpost“.  In Cartomancy (fortune-telling done with a normal deck of playing cards rather than a Tarot deck) the Four of Clubs is said to foretell an imminent major setback, an unexpected set of circumstances, a great misfortune.  

Now, there are those who will tell you that the Four of Spades has been called the Devil’s bedpost by sailors for generations.  In fact, Captain Frederick Chamier (1796 – 1870), in his novel “The Saucy Arethusa” credits sailors for naming the Four of Spades the Devil’s bedpostCaptain Chamier, author of “Ben Brace: The Last of Nelson’s Agamemnons” and “The Life Of A Sailor” published “The Saucy Arethusa” in 1836 which was turned into a play one year later as “Arethusa: A Naval Story.” 

He had been involved in a number of expeditions to America in the early 1800s and would have had, as an officer of the British Royal Navy, occasion to listen in on sailors playing cards.  Critics have stated that his books weren’t very well written however the facts upon which they were based — and the accuracy with which they are recreated — make Chamier‘s books worth reading.

But long before Captain Chamier, there’s the folk story of how the Four of Spades got its name.

As the story goes, one Sunday afternoon, a group of men met secretly — as they often did — to play a game of cards. Back in the day, any recreational activity on a Sunday –especially gambling — was forbidden. But young men being as young men are, they took no heed of this and played cards anyway. Just as the cards were dealt out, a stranger appeared and asked if he could join in. Dressed in fancy, the young men agreed to let him play, all the while hoping the new card player would wager, and lose, large sums of money.

When it was the stranger’s turn to deal, he began shuffling the cards when he accidentally dropped the Four of Spades.  He bent down to pick up the card and one of the young men sitting next to him glanced down to where the card had fallen.  To his horror, he saw the ebony edge of a cloven hoof. The young man jumped up and shouted to his friends that the stranger was had a cloven hoof! 

With that, the young men realized that the stranger who had joined them in their game of cards was none other than the Devil.  Terrified, they fled the room, vowing never again to go against the rules of the Sabbath.

While there’s no indication how old this bit of folklore is, one could assume that it may be as old as the phrase “Devil’s Bones” and “Devil’s Prayerbook” and “Devil’s Book” which date back to the Poor Robin Almanac of the 1670s. It was certainly an established phrase back in the early 1800s in Captain Frederick Chamier‘s time. 

And so there’s a 100-year window in which the phrase Devil’s bedpost could have come about when speaking about the Four of Spades.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to pinpoint the exact date for this phrase.

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2 Responses to “Devil’s Bedpost”

  1. […] Devil’s Bed-Post: The Four of Clubs. [Though according to some, the Four of […]

  2. […] daily, our best day was March 12 with 579 hits!  While many of those visits went to the “Devil’s Bedpost” entry, there were other entries that were nearly as popular as the […]

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