Originally Posted by variantventures
The earliest playing card of which I am aware is the de Unger fragment. This piece is dated to the 13th Century (but the dating is far from precise) and is very strongly related to the Mamluk deck in the Topkapi Museum. It's currently in the Kier Collection which is in the process of being transferred from Berlin to Dallas. I'm communicating with the museum about the possibility of viewing and/or photographing the fragment.
You can see more information about it here
So far as playing cards in Europe, the evidence seems strongly indicative of cards having entered Europe (first in Italy, then in Spain) from the Islamic world sometime in the last quarter of the 14th Century. While it would be nice to date the entry from earlier, the evidence supporting such a supposition has all been very weak.
Frank Jensen once reported this ...
In 1970 another discovery took place. A Collector of Islamic art, Dr. Edmond de Unger, came across papers from the collection of a Mr. Jean Pozzi. Among the papers was one small piece, that proved to be a fragment of a small playing card, being a little more than half of the full card. This fragment is from the suit of cups, and it appears to be the four of cups. The card is remarkably smaller than the Mamluk cards and the remains of the decoration shows, that it is much simpler and sparser than the former cards. Despite the fragmentary condition experts in Islamic art were able to date this card of being late 12th century or early 13th century, and due to details in the decoration, late 12th century seems most likely.
... possibly based on this by Ettinghausen in the early 1970s.
... which looks rather optimistic with the date of the cards (""One might, therefore, with due caution assume a 12th century date ...")
I remember, that I saw more humble web discussions with "14th century" and with notes about modern dating technologies, which were used. Also I remember a note, that the card was found in Spain (if both was right or not, I can't say, also I forgot, where I've seen that ... the discussion seems to have been in the 1990s).
Do you know the latest state in this discussion?
If one looks at the plausible assumption, that Mongols conquered China, learned there to know about playing cards, and exported some of them to the West in direction to Europe, then we have a war between Mongols and Mamluks 1260-1324, and after this some peace.
Genova was invited to have a trading station at Caffa by the Mongols, I think as early as 1257. Twice they were seriously attacked there, but generally the way of playing cards to Europe looks more normal than some trade to the Mamluks.
Some late 13th century crusaders cooperated with the Mongols. Indeed I found two notes about playing card prohibitions by crusaders from the German knight orders, one from 1309/10 in the Preußische Landesorder caused by Hochmeister Siegfried von Feuchtwangen and another one from Hochmeister Werner von Orseln (1324-30) in statutes.
The direct references are from a later period, and both documents are suspected to be either part of a forgery or not correctly recorded. They are no case "sure evidence". Nonetheless, something might have been there. Some German knights died in Acre 1291, and Templars were still ready to cooperate with the Mongols in 1302/03 on Cyprus and on a very small island Ruad.
The Templars were accused 1307 and the German knights also got under suspicion and juristic attacks, but moved their capital from Akkon first to Venice (1291) and then to Marienburg (1309), where it was difficult to use power against them. And then, according to the possibly forged preußische Landesordnung, they prohibited playing card use in gambling context.
There are other early notes of card playing in the Eastern part of Germany and in Bohemia (more or less all without totally sure evidence). Most are from Friedrich Ludwig Hübsch (wrote 1849), who states, that there was secure evidence for playing cards in 1340 in Bohemia and in the capital Prague, but that cards were imported from Nuremberg till 1354, when Prague got an own card producer called Jonathan Kraysel from Nuremberg.
In Nuremberg there was a big Deutschordenskommende ...
... since 1209 as a gift of King Otto IV.
Charles IV, when attempting the revolution (he declared himself as emperor) against emperor Ludwig the Bavarian (1346), had a strong helper in Nuremberg by Bertold of Zollern (brother of the mighty Burggraf Johann I. and Komtur of the Ballei Franken 1445-1449, a very high position in the knight order and the Ballei Franken was one of the biggest institutions). Without being a cleric he got the title bishop of Eichstädt in 1351.
Charles IV used Nuremberg then as a second capital - after Prague. Both cities prospered in the following decades.