The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Knives and Sheath

Hunting Knives

Knives and sheath, British Museum

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


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

26 responses to “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Knives and Sheath

  1. I am so glad I didn’t have to wash those tablecloths. It must’ve been a battle to get them clean.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Hang them indoors by the fire?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about that, but the fire was used for cooking and everyone would be gathered round it on a wet day. They wouldn’t want to be close to wet washing. In larger houses the fire would be in the hall, where people ate and most of the household slept. It’s a tricky little problem.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perhaps they did as women did who had cellars. If they were spacious enough, at least the best clothes could be hung. Might not get as dry as desired, but hot irons helped drive out residual moisture, If it was important enough, the garment might be allowed to hang in a store room.

        Due to the smoke & suspended grease, the kitchen was not the best place. Those kitchens also reeked of rancidity, which was not recommended if trying to dry one’s lord’s shirts.

        Most woolens were quite heavy, like good tweeds, and were often just rubbed with fuller’s earth (superfine dry clay), shaken & beaten until no more dust flew. Soap and water rarely touched them. The accumulated body oils , etc., tended to give some waterproofing, which was more appealing than being spanking clean. Many times the lanolin could not be completely removed, adding to that plus. Soiled spots were much more common. A little extra embroidery or craftily placed jewel hid them cleverly.

        Linens were line dried, even in cold weather. They were brought in, board stiff, allowed to soften, rolled up & set by until ironing day. The slight residual dampness was needed to help smooth wrinkles. Sprinkling was accomplished by a bundle of reeds dipped in water & shaken on the garment. But this often left water spots. Evenly dampened clothes ironed better.

        Gentlemen often had many shirts and smallclothes (underwear) made of linen. Easier to keep clean. Cloth of gold was treated gently with fullers earth & brushed off until the metal gleamed. But some clothes would never look good again. Sir Walter Raleigh’s cape was probably a write-off.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Those knives are really quite beautiful. Have you been to Toledo, April? I had know idea of its reputation for steel and sword-making until I went earlier in the year.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t been to Toledo, but it’s on my list if I ever go to Spain.

      Liked by 2 people

    • The Toledo sword smiths were carrying on metalworking traditions from the Muslim heritage. They had trade secrets that were the envy of the medieval world. This was especially so after the Viking sword-smithing secrets were lost for centuries and only recently rediscovered.

      I’m thinking the Vikings learned their metalwork from their extensive trading network. Either they captured metalworkers from Muslim lands, or managed to discover the secrets some other way. Then they were lost.

      But the Muslim smiths never lost their skills or went through a Dark Age.
      And Spain was not completely taken from them until late 15th century.

      Their skills were too valuable to send them packing to North Africa. They, and many indispensable artisans, were able to stay on as long as they knuckled under Their Catholic Majesties’ regime.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. lydiaschoch

    I didn’t know that knives and spoons were invented before forks were. I wonder when forks showed up?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an eye-opener! I really hadn’t thought much about WHAT medieval knives looked like. When reading about feasting I just pictured a stiletto, dagger, or miniature sword. Presumed they had some kind of quillion, or cross-guard, and were sharp on both sides. I thought they were something of the kind frequently shown in pictures of Shakespearean characters.

    After reading this I looked further into the matter and was surprised that the knives people carried to meals were more like the ones you presented in your description. Also, whittling and utility knives were very similar to the type of knives found on modern jackknives. Some knives were long rectangles with no points whatsoever. With so many medieval crafts requiring knives, I hope to find what purpose the pointless kind accomplished.

    This was a MAJOR crack in my brain that needed filling! Shame on me for being so blase’! THIS is the stuff I love! More input!

    Thank you, Ms. Munday! Hope you’re enjoying the Bank Holiday! Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I had thought about them a bit, but I’m still not sure how many knives some of my characters would have been carrying around. Would the soldiers carry daggers as well as knives? Would a scrivener, the hero of my work in progress, use his eating knife for trimming his pen? Every answer raises another question.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh wow! That’s a thought! Just thinking about Chaucer; did he carry a whetstone? As much as he wrote, for pleasure & the King’s service, he must have gone through scads of pens. If he did use his penknife for meals, was his mouth & beard dyed from residual ink?

        Looking at paintings of the times, I generally only see a dagger hanging from a belt. But perhaps that was how daggers were expected to be carried. Perhaps one’s purse contained the dining knife? I think I remembered seeing a painting of a young man with two small scabbards on his belt. Too small for swords. Perhaps one for eating & the other for everything else? If I did see it I probably just thought it was for show. Fine cutlery was a mark of wealth & prestige. Now I wonder. . . . .

        Also read of how people were paired at trenchers; men cutting choice morsels for his lady partner. But, if women used their own knives, how were they carried? Were the separate pockets (like the nursery rhyme Lydia wore) big enough to carry a knife? Did pockets exist then? Were there other places they were secreted? The bodice? A garter? A chatelaine?

        When did children carry knives? They had to be taught young the safety points. Schoolboys had to have had them. Little girls too, I suppose. Likely a must for apprentices. Imagine kids today carrying such things, and being EXPECTED to! And know how to sharpen them! No wonder the age was brutal and young men loved bloody street fights just for amusement.

        Goodness, this is really opening more doors than closing them. Good luck!
        I appreciate everything you write. You pull together so many bits and pieces I’ve accumulated through the years, giving them cohesion. Sorry if I’m over-stirring the pot!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. josypheen

    They are really beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cool info, this is a fab series April.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – A Knight on Horseback Aquamanile | A Writer's Perspective

  9. Those knives are beautiful! I’m thoroughly enjoying this BM series. Next time I’m in London I must spend some time there. For what it’s worth, I think your scrivener would have had a special, small knife for trimming his quill -from which the later term “penknife” probably comes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Yes, I agree about the penknife. After I wrote that I came across an illustration showing just that.

      I can recommend the medieval galleries. Compared to the rest of the museum they were completely lacking in crowds, which meant I could linger in front of things.

      Liked by 1 person

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