Know your historical knives: Renaissance “Notation Knives”

Notation Knives

(image via Atlas Obscura)

Every now and again I come across a really unique and rare example of historical knife style. Often these are not the worlds most amazing blades, or even functional for that matter, but have a cultural and historical significance. One example that comes to mind is the 4th Century Chinese “Knife Money”, a form of coinage shaped as a knife. The latest example I have found are known as “Notation Knives”.

They come from Renaissance France, and contains engravings of music which is meant to accompany the food being served by said knife.

From Atlas Obscura:

Outside of a Disney movie, it’s hard to imagine chefs at their carving stations wiping the jus from their blades and bursting into song. But that’s just what “notation knives” seem designed for. These rare knives—only sixteen are extant—are perplexing in both their design and their use. Who was carving meat with these blades, and are they the same people who were singing the music etched onto their blades?

The blades, which date from the early to mid-16th century, all seem to have been made somewhere in France, but for an unknown Italian client. Italian knives of the period typically bore a coat of arms or emblem that would be upright when the knife was held point up; in other countries, one viewed the emblem holding the knife horizontally.

Transcribing the notation reveals that all the knives we know of come from just two separate sets. They don’t seem to represent a lost Renaissance tradition of singing meat carvers so much as the peculiar needs of a singular institution. Today, the knives are scattered across collections in France, England, the Netherlands, and Philadelphia.

The craftsmanship and materials are superb; many have exquisitely decorated ivory handles. Their unusual shape—a broad, flat blade with a pointed tip—is the first mystery. The point evokes a smenbratori, or carving knife (carvers jammed the tip into a joint of a roast and twisted to break it open). But to a bladesmith like Josh Davis, who recreated one of the knives from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it doesn’t seem designed with serious cutting in mind. “It isn’t really supposed to be well-balanced,” he says. “I think it was more of a serving knife.” A knife that’s really more of a spatula, in other words, with a broad, flat blade that also provides a convenient surface for the music.

(via Atlas Obscura)

I took a bunch of Art History classes in college and I wish I had known about these. They would have made a great subject for a term paper. Professor Blick, my RenArt prof, would have loved these.





  1. Sam L. says:


Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Know your historical knives: Renaissance “Notation Knives”

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email