I was very happy to see these knives in the British Museum, because I quite often write about knives and daggers in my novels and it was useful to do a bit of research into them.
These particular knives are French and date from the first decade of the fifteenth century. The longest knife is about 15 inches long.
All four of the knives in the picture fitted into the sheath. The larger knives were used for carving meat. Once carved, the slice of meat was presented on the flat of the blade.
It’s thought they were a wedding present, but that’s not a certainty. They’re certainly very expensive, though, as the handles are enamelled and the leather sheath is also decorated. Whilst not every knife handle was enamelled and not every sheath was made from leather, sheathes and scabbards would usually have been decorated. Decorations would not just have been carved, but painted and occasionally gilded. People of the fourteenth century liked bright colours.
Many more ordinary blades were decorated. This was often little more than a maker’s mark, but the blades could also be inlaid with designs. The blades themselves were usually made with iron mixed with imported steel. The handless were made from bone, wood, horn and metal. Of these, wood was the most common.
Only knives and spoons were used at meals and people carried their own knives with them for use at mealtimes, even when they were guests. Towards the end of the fourteenth century hosts began to provide knives for important guests. Sharing a knife with someone at a meal was a sign of trust
There were, of course, rules of etiquette concerning the use of knives during meals. Knives brought to the table were supposed to be clean and sharp. They should not be wiped on the tablecloth and neither should anyone lick their knife. Rules such as these were usually written down in an attempt to change people’s behaviour. You can assume, therefore, that, if there’s a rule against it, lots of people were doing it. You were not supposed to use your knife to trim your nails at the table. Using the knife to carry food to the mouth was forbidden: that’s what your fingers were for. You could use the knife to put food on your trencher, but it was fingers only from that point. If you wanted to salt your food, you had to use the flat of the blade to lift salt from the salt dish, not your fingers. Above all you were not to pick your teeth with the point of the blade.
People carried knives about with them. Chaucer’s reeve had a Sheffield knife tucked in the top of his hose. I have no idea how secure this was, unless the scabbard was attached to the laces which tied his hose to his braies. The people to whom the knives in the British Museum belonged doubtless had very secure ways of transporting them.
Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson
Knives and Scabbards – J. Cogwill, M. de Neergaard and N. Griffiths