Renaissance Knives Had Music Engraved on the Blades; Now Hear the Songs Performed by Modern Singers

Image cour­tesy of The Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um

On any giv­en week­end, in any part of the state where I live, you can find your­self stand­ing in a hall full of knives, if that’s the kind of thing you like to do. It is a very niche kind of expe­ri­ence. Not so in some oth­er weapons expos—like the Arms and Armor gal­leries at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, where every­one, from the most war­like to the staunchest of paci­fists, stands in awe at the intri­cate orna­men­ta­tion and incred­i­bly deft crafts­man­ship on dis­play in the suits of armor, lances, shields, and lots and lots of knives.

We must acknowl­edge in such a space that the worlds of art and of killing for fame and prof­it were nev­er very far apart dur­ing Europe’s late Medieval and Renais­sance peri­ods. Yet we encounter many sim­i­lar arti­sanal instru­ments from the time, just as fine­ly tuned, but made for far less bel­liger­ent pur­pos­es.

As Maya Cor­ry of the Fitzwilliam Muse­um in Cam­bridge—an insti­tu­tion with its own impres­sive arms and armor col­lec­tion—com­ments in the video above (at 2:30), one unusu­al kind of 16th cen­tu­ry knife meant for the table, not the bat­tle­field, offers “insight into that har­mo­nious, audi­ble aspect of fam­i­ly devo­tions,” prayer and song.

From the col­lec­tion of the Fitzwilliam Muse­um, in Cam­bridge. (Johan Oost­er­man )

These knives, which have musi­cal scores engraved in their blades, brought a table togeth­er in singing their prayers, and may have been used to carve the lamb or beef in their “strik­ing bal­ance of dec­o­ra­tive and util­i­tar­i­an func­tion.” At least his­to­ri­ans think such “nota­tion knives,” which date from the ear­ly 1500s, were used at ban­quets. “The sharp, wide steel would have been ide­al for cut­ting and serv­ing meat,” writes Eliza Grace Mar­tin at the WQXR blog, “and the accen­tu­at­ed tip would have made for a per­fect skew­er.” But as Kris­ten Kalber, cura­tor at the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um, which hous­es the knives at the top of the post, tells us “din­ers in very grand feasts didn’t cut their own meat.” It’s unlike­ly they would have sung from the bloody knives held by their ser­vants.

The knives’ true pur­pose “remains a mys­tery,” Mar­tin remarks, like many “rit­u­als of the Renais­sance table.”  Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um cura­tor Kirstin Kennedy admits in the video above that “we are not entire­ly sure” what the “splen­did knife” she holds was used for. But we do know that each knife had a dif­fer­ent piece of music on each side, and that a set of them togeth­er con­tained dif­fer­ent har­mo­ny parts in order to turn a room­ful of din­ers into a cho­rus. One set of blades had the grace on one side, with the inscrip­tion, “the bless­ing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat.” The oth­er side holds the bene­dic­tion, to be sung after the din­ner: “The say­ing of grace. We give thanks to you God for your gen­eros­i­ty.”

Com­mon enough ver­biage for any house­hold in Renais­sance Europe, but when sung, at least by a cho­rus from the Roy­al Col­lege of Music, who recre­at­ed the music and made the record­ings here, the prayers are superbly grace­ful. Above, hear one ver­sion of the Grace and Bene­dic­tion from the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um knives; below, hear a sec­ond ver­sion. You can hear a cap­ti­vat­ing set of choral prayers from the Fitzwilliam Muse­um knives at WQXR’s site, record­ed for the Fitzwilliam’s “Madon­nas & Mir­a­cles” exhib­it. We are as unlike­ly now to encounter singing kitchen knives as we are to run into a horse and rid­er bear­ing 100 pounds of fine­ly-wrought wear­able steel sculp­ture. Such strange arti­facts seem to speak of a strange peo­ple who val­ued beau­ty whether carv­ing up the main course or cut­ting down their ene­mies.

via WQXR/@tedgioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ancient Philo­soph­i­cal Song Recon­struct­ed and Played for the First Time in 1,000 Years

See The Guidon­ian Hand, the Medieval Sys­tem for Read­ing Music, Get Brought Back to Life

Hear the Ear­li­est Known Piece of Poly­phon­ic Music: This Com­po­si­tion, Dat­ing Back to 900 AD, Changed West­ern Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • T says:

    Might the knives also have a “tun­ing fork” like prop­er­ty that when struck set the key in which to be sung?

  • Julie Biddle says:

    I remem­ber meals at my Grand­par­ents’ table on spe­cial occa­sions we would sing grace, all hold­ing hands, and with sev­er­al har­mo­ny parts. I always loved it, even as a child. The tune was Dox­ol­o­gy, Old 100th, and we sang these lyrics:

    Be present at our table, Lord;
    be here and every­where adored;
    thy crea­tures bless, and grant that we
    may feast in par­adise with thee.

    For those not famil­iar with the tune…

    We’ve let that cus­tom lapse over the years, but thanks for bring­ing back that mem­o­ry!

  • Jaroslaw says:

    Love it, could be pos­si­ble to down­load and use for pho­to slides from my m.detecting escapades?

  • KT says:

    The knives in the sec­ond pho­to are in the col­lec­tion of the Musée de la Renais­sance in Écouen and were on loan to the Fitzwilliam Muse­um for the ‘Madon­nas and Mir­a­cles’ exhi­bi­tion.

  • Suzie says:

    Kudos to those involved in putting this all togeth­er and in putting it up so those of us far away can par­tic­i­pate in it!

  • Tony H says:

    Would it have any­thing to do with the print­ing press? It was still ear­ly days for mass print­ing and most texts were either reli­gious or sci­en­tif­ic. It may have not yet been pos­si­ble to buy a book with pop­u­lar songs and prayers yet.

  • Cynthia Guidry says:

    I lived in a Cis­ter­cian monastery for 10+ years. I could imag­ine these knives hav­ing been used there…beauty and func­tion­al­i­ty were hall­marks of the Cis­ter­cian charism…not to men­tion the beau­ti­ful chant and ancient nota­tion.

  • Carla says:

    It seems like­ly that, assum­ing squires could read music, the squires would have these knives and sing grace and a bene­dic­tion to the guests. This way squires would have the music con­ve­nient­ly and then serve food with­out hav­ing to rus­tle with papers. Each squire would have their own knife for their vocal part and in this way the knives could nev­er go miss­ing and could be passed on to new ones.
    Whether the knives were intend­ed for servers or guests to sing could be deter­mined by how many knives there were. If there were many knives with many of the same part, then pos­si­bly guests would sing (or per­haps all in atten­dance), if there were only one knife per part, for instance, or only enough knives for the squires, then it’s like­ly the squires would sing, which let’s face it, would be very impres­sive to the guests.

  • Brandy says:

    That’s exact­ly what I was think­ing. This was like­ly used at a monastery to serve the com­mu­ni­ty.

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