The humorous phrase to study the history of the four kings, and its variants, mean to play cards.
This phrase occurs, for example:
– In Playing Cards, published in the Westmorland Advertiser, and Kendal Chronicle (Kendal, Westmorland, England) of Saturday 24th April 1819:
It is a well known vulgarity in England to say, “Come, Sir, will you have a stroke at the history of the four kings!” meaning will you play a game at cards.
– In The Boonville Weekly Enquirer (Boonville, Indiana, USA) of Friday 10th March 1916:
Bulgin revival in Boonville is growing in interest and the old sinners are trembling in their boots. Gray headed men that have grown old in sin, have had the scales raked from their eyes and started on the narrow pathway, cutting out profanity, strong drink and other sins. Women, far advanced in years, who spent most of their time in studying the “history of the four kings,” have burned their pasteboards, (one burned seven decks) and are now devoting their spare time to their families, their church and their master. It was a great day for Boonville when Dr. Bulgin and his earnest and able assistants arrived in our town. No tongue can tell or no human being can measure the great and lasting good they have brought to our community. It has entered every locality, and every home not only sees, but feels its good effects. May it continue until every sinner is converted.
The phrase to study the history of the four kings and variants originated in the jocular nouns the history of the four kings and the books of the four kings, which refer to packs of playing cards.
These nouns, in turn, pun on:
– the four kings, in the sense of the four playing cards in a pack, each bearing a representation of a king;
– the Book of Kings, the name of the two (formerly four) books of the Old Testament relating the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah, from the accession of Solomon to the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. The following explanations are from the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, June 2022), s.v. king:
In the original Hebrew text, 1 and 2 Kings are a single book. In the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the older English versions, there are four books of Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel being regarded as the first two; this system of division, following the Septuagint, is still often used in the Orthodox canon, although typically with the books entitled 1–4 Kingdoms in English.
The noun the books of the four kings is first recorded in The Games of Gargantua, Chapter XXII of The first Book Of the Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in Physick: Containing five Books of the Lives, Heroick Deeds, and Sayings of Gargantua, And his Sonne Pantagruel (London: Printed for Richard Baddeley, 1653), by the Scottish author and translator Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660):
After supper were brought in upon the place the faire wooden Gospels, and the books of the foure Kings, that is to say, many paires of tables and cardes: or the faire flusse, one, two, three.
Note: In the French original text, while les beaux évangiles de bois corresponds to the fair wooden gospels, no phrase corresponds to the books of the four kings—this French original text is as follows, in La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel iadis cōposee par M. Alcofribas abstracteur de quinte essence. Liure plein de Pantagruelisme (Lyon: François Juste, 1542), by the French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553):
Apres souper venoient en place les beaux euangiles de boys, cest a dire force tabliers, ou le beau flux, vn, deux troys.
The noun the history of the four kings is first recorded in The Metamorphos’d Beau: Or, The Intrigues of Ludgate (London: Printed by John How, 1700), by the English satirist Edward Ward (1667-1731):
He mov’d to a Table by the Fire-side, which was begirt with Students, Contemplating on the History of the four Kings; some Swearing that he that should offer to Beg with two Trumps in his Hand, understood the right of the Game no more than he did the Turkish Alcoran.
The following is from The Minor (London: Printed, and Sold by J. Coote [and 6 others], 1760), a comedy by the British actor and playwright Samuel Foote (1720-1777):
Come, shall we have a dip in the history of the Four Kings, this morning?