Cards first appeared in Europe around 1375. Before this time there was no mention of cards in any of the records we possess, even those that ought to have mentioned cards, such as proscriptions on gaming. After this time, cards suddenly appear as a curiosity and as a threat to be extinguished, popping up in cities across the continent.
Soon after the mention of cards as foreign curiosities and threats to productivity, we start seeing information about the cardmakers themselves. The biggest centers of card production were located in what is today southern Germany, but most countries also produced at least some of their own cards independently.
The question of who brought cards into Europe is one that has been mostly ignored by the academics researching this subject, who are in general most concerned with proving that their nation had cards first. French academics can prove they were in France first, and Italian and German scholars can do exactly the same. Because of this sense of competition, the records we have right at the cusp of the introduction of cards are all suspect, and it is challenging to glean any reliable information from them.
What we know about how cards got into Europe comes mostly from logic and deduction. They must surely have been traders, for example — cards followed the Silk Road and appeared first in Vienna; who else could this be, right? Most modern scholars are quite cautious, and stick carefully to this story as it makes a very good null hypothesis. Attempting to craft a slightly more interesting history would be academically risky, because of the wide variety of pretty lies that have circulated, mostly about gypsy fortune tellers and long-lost doctrines of imaginary cultures.
Really, though — modern scholars ought to face the possibility that the Romani people may in fact have been the ones to carry both playing cards and xylography into Europe. They came from the same region, they travelled at the same time, they appeared in the same places. They have been traditionally linked in our minds for a very long time, too — and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that gypsies are all fortune tellers or that tarot cards will tell us anything about their past, it is important to remember that stereotypes normally come from somewhere.
Excerpt from E. S. Taylor's "The history of playing cards, with anecdotes of their use in conjuring, fortune-telling, and card-sharping":
The stormy period of the first Consulship of Napoleon and that of the Empire which followed it, was especially characterized by cartomantic practices in France. At this time, there lived in Paris a famous woman, whose renown as a prophetess will probably not soon pass away. This person was Mlle. Lenormand, whose influence with the empress Josephine, and even Napoleon himself, was said to be considerable.
The game was often referred to as "gold speckled leaves", which does make it sound quite a lot like early gold-leaf Tarot cards. Many scholars will tell you that playing cards were invented in 827 because they have conflated these two games. If there is any relationship between these games, which I doubt, it is this:
Alphonse Louis Constant (a.k.a. Éliphas Lévi Zahed) was a famous French occultist and kabbalist who revolutionized the field of cartomancy. Had it not been for Lévi, the theories of Court de Gebelin might never have become popular.
Jean Baptiste Alliette (a.k.a. Etteilla) was an influential French occultist who helped establish the occult nature of the Tarot. Had it not been for Etteilla, the theories of Court de Gebelin might never have become popular. It was Alliette who made divination with the Tarot popular.
Papus was a French doctor, hypnotist, and occultist, who founded the modern Martinist Order and helped to popularize occultism. He was born in Spain in 1865, but his family moved to Paris when he was four years old, and he received his education there. He wrote about the Tarot from a Kabbalistic perspective, and was an expert on the works of Éliphas Lévi.
Antoine Court de Gébelin (c. 1719-1784) was a French pastor who initiated the rumor that the Tarot represented the remnants of the Book of Thoth, the wisdom of the ancient pharaohs. He was incorrect, but his theory gained widespread popularity and it has taken over two hundred years to truly dispense with his ideas. Even today, there are people who believe that the Tarot is the Book of Thoth.
On the twenty-third day of the sixth month in the thirty-first year of the zhiyuan period (17 July 1294), we caught Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Zhugou playing cards, and have also found wood blocks to print cards. Each person has admitted to the truth of the accusation. We have, according to the rules, passed judgement and punished correctly the organizer Lu Donger, accessory to gambling Zheng Zhugou, the owner of the premises Jiang Sier, and the block printer Ye Lin, and dispatched to the Ever-abundant Treasury for deposit the nine cards (zhipai) that were about to be destroyed, and...
1364, St. Gallen, Switzerland. A local ordinance forbids dice, allows board games, and leaves the subject of cards untouched. This is often cited as the date before which cards could not have been known in Europe.
We know playing cards entered Europe in the 1370s because there are no references before this time, and suddenly they start appearing across the continent. In St. Gallen, an ordinance made in 1379 forbade the use of playing cards.