Behold the knife

Ah… behold the knife indeed.  Long before it was used as a weapon of mass destruction in the good ol’ stabby days, it was actually the earliest known implement or a tool to use for eating.  In the stone age, knives were made of flint and honed down to do work on antler, bone and ivory.  Neolithic people used stone hammers to pound stone knives into sharp edged tools to spear and skin animals and of course to divide up the spoils of the hunt!  By the bronze age, single edged knives were made as tools to prepare and carve food, and double-edged knives were featuring points that are similar to a dagger made to hunt and also used for war!

During the early middle-ages, the Franks would carry a “all-purpose” knife called the scramasax.  The scramasax was about 20 inches long and hung from the belt and was also used for hunting and battle.  In the middle-middle ages, Noblemen would own two knives: one to be used as a kitchen tool and a smaller one to be used as both a eating utensil and a knife.  You see, back then the host may not have a drawer full of eating utensils as we have now, so the guests would need to BYOK.

FUN FACT:  A whetstone was often placed by the entrance of a great hall, which was used for celebrations, so that the guests could put a nice sharp edge on the knives before entering and enjoying the feast du jour.  Hence the expression “to whet one’s appetite” was born!

Knife handles were generally either one solid piece of metal or made from two hollow halves die-stamped from thin sheets of silver of which the blade was inserted.  The space between the two halves would be held together from a resin type of material that would melt away if exposed to heat, such as a warm hand or too close to an open flame.

FUN FACT #2 this is also where we have the expression “to fly off the handle” in the heat of anger!

For the wealthy, knife handles were made of gold or silver and adorned with semi-precious gems.  T Henry VIII, in a remarkable display of wealth and power, commissioned his knife handles encrusted with diamonds, pearls, rubies and pearls.  Later, his decedents would incorporate iPhones into the handles, just because they could.  In the second half of the 18th Century, pistol grip handles were de rigueur, and by the nineteenth century knife handles were made of colored material to commemorate a religious holiday, such as ebony for lent to represent Christ’s suffering on the cross, and ivory for Easter to symbolize his resurrection, also used was mother-of-pearl and bone.  Red and green handles were popular during Christmas.  Fuchsia was experimented with, but some people thought that is was SO last year.

A couple of centuries earlier (1600) the Italians actually introduced the “Dinner only knife” but only wealthy (of course) could supply their guests with utensils.  When Cardinal (of course) Richelieu, the French statesman and leading minister to Louis XIII, witnessed a dinner guest use the tip of a double-edged knife as a tooth-pick, he ordered knives wrought with rounded tips and a single cutting edge

Pick not thy teeth with thy knyfe,

Nor with thy fyngers end,

But take a stick or some clean thing

Then doe you not ofende.
(Book of Nuture, 1577)

In an effort to discourage people from using the pointy end of the knife to stick people, Louis XIV made it illegal offence to use and carry knives with stabby ends on them. Preferring the hack and slash of the knife edge instead.  On a good note, Louis XIV was the first King to provide each guest with a knife, fork and spoon when you came over to his house to have supper!  By the eighteenth century, it has in high fashion to have matching suites of silverware throughout Europe and England.

When it was no longer cool to use the knife to spear, lift, and eat food, the tip of the knife was changed from round to blunt to square, to a slightly rounded but pointed form.  As well, the blade changed from narrow and slightly curved, to wide and straight, closer to the look of a spatula.  Knives were then unceremoniously used to balance difficult food to spear with fork tines, such as peas, rice and gravy

I eat my peas with honey,

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

But it keeps them on my knife.


In 1740, a very clever fellow from Sheffield, England, accidently fused silver and copper together and thus invented what is known today as Sheffield silver, which of course provided harder knives than sterling, used less silver, and then like magic, it lowered the price!  By the mid-eighteenth century every Thomas, Richard, and Henry could provide eating utensils to his family and guests!

Today, we have a wide selection of table knives to choose from, there are seven to be exact:  The dinner knife, Steak knife, Lunch knife, Fish knife, Dessert knife, Fruit knife, and the ever important butter knife.

Dinner Knife:
The Dinner knife is the longest in a set of flatware (9 ¼ – 9 ¾).  It is used to cut and push food and is laid on the table at all meals, formal and informal.  The exception is when soup is served as the main course and the dinner knife is not required.

Steak knife:
The steak knife is a specialized knife for slicing into juicy and tender slabs of steak!  Coming in at 8 ¼ to 9 inches and has a sharp tip and a serrated edge to cut thick portions of meat.  At a formal meal it is not provided because meat is served roasted for the main course, a method of preparation easily cut with Dinner knife.  However, at an informal meal when thick or tough portions of meat are served, steak knives are a must!

Luncheon knife:
The Lunch knife 8 – 8 ¾ inched long, a size that balances the proportions to the lunch plate, which is generally 8 ½ inches in diameter.  Although the lunch knife is used at formal and informal lunches, it is not mandatory for either occasion.

Fish knife:
Before your local “Chippy” restaurant came around, the fish knife was invented in the 19th Century, the aristocracy would use two dinner forks for fish.  One to cut a bite and the other to eat.  Us commoners ate fish from a single fork and used bread as a “pusher”.  When the middle class began to use fish knives, the aristocracy, whose silver was handed down through generations, scoffed at the fish knife as “too Select”.

The fish knife is a specialized shape not included in a flatware set or suite.  This day and age the fish knife features a wide blade with a dull edge and tip made with a notched point used to separate the skeleton from the body and lift the bones onto a plate. Fish knives vary in length, but typically 8 ¾ inches long and are used both formally and informal dining.  However, never to be used at the Chippy.

Dessert knife:
The dessert knife is a specialized utensil not made as part of a flatware set.  Used formally and informal dining with a dessert fork.  The dessert knife measures approximately 8 inches long and features a narrow blade with a rounded or pointed tip.  The rounded tip is used to section soft desserts, the pointed tip to cut firm desserts.

Fruit knife:
At 6 ½ to 7 ¼ inches long, the fruit knife is a specialized utensil not made for as part of a flatware set.  The fruit knife features a pointed tip and a narrow blade that is straight or slightly curved.  Sometimes the fruit knife’s blade will be serrated.  It is used to cut and peel fresh fruit at the table in informal and formal dining.

Butter knife:
Sometimes also called the butter spreader.  The butter knife is usually 5 to 6 inches long.  It is the smallest knife in the flatware set.  The tip of the blade is rounded and some are slightly wider at the tip.  The butter is used differently in formal and informal dining.  Controversially, or at least, not at my dinner table, the butter knife during a formal dinner in a private home is generally not used due to the multiplicity of courses which should provide the dinner guest with sufficient taste and texture as to not need bread and butter.  Sacrilege I say!  However, at formal luncheons and informal meals where fewer courses are served, bread and butter are provided, and a butter knife is provided.


Thank you for reading my first article for Jeeves Training.  I hope to share more next week where we will talk about…Spoons!
Christopher Noble


This article could not have been written without severe plagiarizing from the book “The Art of the Table” by Suzanne Von Drachenfels

This Post Has 2 Comments

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