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Pair of knives in case

  • Place of origin:

    Burgundy, France (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    1400-1450 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    [Case] Leather, <i>cuir bouilli</i>
    [knife (culinary tool)] Steel, silver-gilt, transluscent enamel, forged, raised, cast, pierced, engraved

  • Museum number:

    2239:1 to 3-1855

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, room 10a, case 3

Nobles employed squire-carvers to cut meat at table as part of the dining ritual Carvers used two knives, one to cut the meat, the other to hold it steady, and carry slices to the diners. Knives were both portable and personal objects. The leather sheath for these knives has loops to attach it to the carver's belt, and the painted coat of arms on the sheath indicates the owner, but is now defaced and impossible to identify.
Owning fine cutlery in the 15th century was a sign of wealth, elegance and refinement. Using elaborate carving knives and cases lent dignity and splendour to the serving of meals in noble households.The wealthy and the nobility employed Squire Carvers to cut and serve meat in a ritualised performance. At the beginning of a meal the carver laid the knives on the table pointing towards the master. To emphasise that this was not a threatening gesture, he would cover them with a white cloth. The religious inscriptions on the knife reflect the owner's piety.

The knife was the main eating implement in Europe until the middle of the 17th century. The basic form of the table knife was quite different from these, and was a single-edged blade more or less pointed, with a handle, which has remained virtually the same since Antiquity, although the details of construction, shape and decoration have varied. Smaller knives used for cutting and eating, were similarly kept in portable cases as it was normal practice for everyone to carry their own cutlery. Dinner hosts, from nobles to inns and hostels, rarely provided cutlery so it remained individual and personalised.

Physical description

[Case] The case is of leather embossed with Gothic foliage against a metted ground, a swan, a parrot and bird and an escutcheon on each side (now defaced). The top has an illegible inscription. The lid is decorated with foliage. Down the sides are lion masks surrounding holes thorugh with attachment strings once passed. The case has 3 slots internally one for each of these knives and one probably for a skewer/steel now missing.

The case is decorated using the cuir bouilli technique, a method of shaping leather when it is wet. Once shaped the leather is hardened by rapid drying or by dipping into boiling water for up to two minutes
[knife (culinary tool)] Knife with leaf-shaped, steel blade and silver-gilt handle with tang running through to a bead on the end. The flaring handle is faceted, engraved with scrolling flowers on a cross-hatched ground and with two panels pierced with the inscription in Gothic script against an opaque blue enamel ground: 'Mater dei', 'memento mei' ('Mother of God, be mindful of me'). The handle is engraved with fleur-de-lys and a further inscription, 'ave maria gracia plena dns tec' ('Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord be with you'). The finial is castellated, the curved cap being engraved with foliage, sprigs and a quatrefoil.
[knife (culinary tool)] Knife with leaf-shaped, steel blade and silver-gilt handle with tang running through to a bead on the end. The flaring handle is faceted, engraved with scrolling flowers on a cross-hatched ground and with two panels pierced with the inscription in Gothic script against an opaque blue enamel ground: 'Mater dei', 'memento mei' ('Mother of God, be mindful of me'). The handle is engraved with fleur-de-lys and a further inscription, 'ave maria gracia plena dns tec' ('Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord be with you'). The finial is castellated, the curved cap being engraved with foliage, sprigs and a quatrefoil.

Place of Origin

Burgundy, France (possibly, made)

Date

1400-1450 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

[Case] Leather, cuir bouilli
[knife (culinary tool)] Steel, silver-gilt, transluscent enamel, forged, raised, cast, pierced, engraved

Marks and inscriptions

[knife (culinary tool)] Gothic 'R' under a crescent
[knife (culinary tool)] Two panels pierced with the inscription in Gothic script against an opaque blue enamel ground: 'Mater dei', 'memento mei'. 'Mother of God, be mindful of me'.
[knife (culinary tool)] The handle is engraved with fleur-de-lys and a further inscription, 'ave maria gracia plena dns tec' 'Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord be with you'.
[knife (culinary tool)] Gothic 'R' under a crescent

Dimensions

[Case] Length: 38.3 cm, Width: 5.2 cm case, Width: 6.9 cm cover, Depth: 4.2 cm cover
[knife (culinary tool)] Length: 37.5 cm, Length: 23.7 cm blade, Width: 4.5 cm blade, Depth: 0.7 cm handle
[knife (culinary tool)] Length: 37.5 cm, Length: 23.7 mm blade, Width: 4.5 cm blade, Depth: 0.8 cm handle

Object history note

The provenance of the cutlery set until the 19th century is not known. It was bought by the Museum from the Bernal Collection in 1855. This was an enormous collection of metalwork, glass, ceramics and miniatures belonging to Ralph Bernal, a lawyer and MP. The sale by Christie, Manson and Woods took 32 days during which 4294 lots fetched nearly £71,000. The Museum bought 730 lots including this cutlery set for which it paid £49.10s.

Charles the Bold Exhibition RF.2006/635

Historical significance: The attribution of these knives to one of the princely households of France (and possibly Burgundy) is on the ground of the fleur-de-lys, emblem of the Kings of France and all the French princes, among whom the Dukes of Burgundy kept the most sumpuous court. However, there exists a number of carving knives with handles of silver-gilt, enriched with transluscent enamel, mostly bearing the arms of Philip III, Duke of Burgund,y as assumed by him n October 1430. These differ from the V&A set in form and ornament and so no certain attribution can be made.

Historical context note

This is princely cutlery. Owning fine cutlery in the 15th century was a sign of wealth, elegance and refinement. Using elaborate carving knives and cases lent dignity and splendour to the serving of meals in noble households.

Wealthy nobles employed Squire Carvers to cut and serve meat in a ritualised performance. At the beginning of a meal the carver laid the knives on the table pointing towards the master, but to emphasise that this was not a threatening gesture, he would cover them with a white cloth. For carving, one knife was used to cut the meat and the other to hold it steady and to carry slices to the diners. The religious inscriptions on the knife handles emphasise that good meat was not to be taken for granted during the 15th century.

The knife was the main eating implement in Europe until the middle of the 17th century. The basic form of the table knife, a single-edged blade more or less pointed, with a handle, has remained virtually the same since Antiquity, although the details of construction, shape and decoration have varied.

The leather case indicates how cutlery was regarded as portable. The case has hoops for attaching it to the carver's belt. The coat of arms, largely rubbed out, tied it to its owner. Smaller knives used for cutting and eating, were similarly kept in portable cases as it was normal practice for everyone to carry their own cutlery. Dinner hosts, from nobles to inns and hostels, rarely provided cutlery so it remained individual and personalised.

Descriptive line

Steel blades, silver-gilt handles, in leather case, France (probably), 1400-1450

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Masterpieces of Cutlery and the Art of Eating, An Exhibition organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers of London, London 1979, p. 3, cat. 2
Benker, Gertrud, Alte Bestecke: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Tischkultur, Verlag George D.W. Callwey, Munich, 1978, ISBN 3 7667 0426 5, p. 67, fig. 79
Coffin, Sarah D. et al, Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table 1500-2005, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Assouline, New York 2006
General history of cutlery
Trigt, Jan Van, Cutlery, From Gothic to Art Deco: The J. Hollander Collection, Pandora, Antwerp, 2003. ISBN 90-5325-223-1
For comparisons
Fifty Masterpieces of Metalwork, Victoria and Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1951, cat. 33, p. 68
Campbell, Marian. [Catalogue entry]. In: Charles Le Téméraire (1433-1477): Faste et Déclin de la cour de Bourgogne. Brussels: Fonds Mercator, 2008. p.290, no.115, ill. Catalogue of the exhibition held Musée Historique de Berne, 25 April - 24 August 2008 and at Bruggemuseum & Groeningemuseum Bruges, 27 March - 21 July 2009.

Exhibition History

Medieval Treasury (V&A 01/07/2004-31/07/2004)
Masterpieces of Cutlery and the Art of Eating: An Exhibition organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers of London (V&A 11/07/1979-26/08/1979)
Charles the Bold (1433-1477): Splendour of Burgundy (Groeningemuseum 27/03/2009-21/07/2009)
Charles the Bold (1433-1477): Splendour of Burgundy (Groeningemuseum 27/03/2009-21/07/2009)
Charles the Bold (1433-1477): Splendour of Burgundy (Historisches Museum, Bern 25/04/2008-24/08/2008)

Labels and date

Medieval Treasury:
PAIR OF CARVING KNIVES WITH CASE
The handles of silver-gilt, enriched with transluscent enamel
FRENCH?
Early 15th century
The case of leather (cuir bouilli, coloured and gilt
Inv. no. 2239-1855
The splendour which dignified the service of meals in princely houses of the middle ages is well illustrated by the elaborate carving knives and cases carried by the officers of the household known as Squire Carvers. At the beginning of the emal, the Squire Carver would lay these knives on the table, turning the points towards his master, but covering them with a white cloth. For the actual carving one knife was used to cut the meat, the other to hold it steady and to carry the slices to the trenchers. The embossed leather sheath shows traces of its original colours. [Until 26/07/2004]
PAIR OF CARVING KNIVES
Handles of engraved and pierced silver-gilt, enriched with translucent enamel; the sheath of cut and embossed leather (cuir bouilli).
French or Burgundian; early 15th century

Production Note

The attribution of these knives is based on their fleur-de-lys decoration, emblem of the Kings of France and all the French princes, among whom the Dukes of Burgundy kept the most sumptuous court.

Materials

Enamel; Leather; Steel; Silver-gilt

Techniques

Engraving; Casting; Piercing; Raising; Forging; Cuir bouilli

Categories

Accessories; Containers; Eating; Enamels; Household objects; Metalwork; Tableware & cutlery; Tools & Equipment

Collection code

MET

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