Renaissance Knives Had Music Engraved on the Blades & Now You Can 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017.

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

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