Rhodri Marsden's interesting objects: The table knife

In 1637, Cardinal Richelieu ordered that all his knives must have their points filed down and rounded off

Rhodri Marsden
Wednesday 06 May 2015 15:57 BST
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Louis XIV banned pointed knives in an attempt to curb excessive violence
Louis XIV banned pointed knives in an attempt to curb excessive violence (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

* You could try stabbing someone to death with a table knife, but there'd be no point. Ha! But seriously, folks, you'd be very unlucky to be killed with a table knife, and for this we can thank the civilising instincts of Cardinal Richelieu. This week in 1637, the noted clergyman and chief minister to Louis XIII ordered that all his knives must have their points filed down and rounded off. Cutlery drawers across the Western world would, in time, feel the shuddering impact of his decision.

* Richelieu was a stickler for table etiquette. The story goes that he once exposed an imposter pretending to be a nobleman by observing the uncouth way he dealt with a plate of olives, but it was the use of knives at dinner that particularly irked him. The practice of reaching across the table, stabbing things with a knife and raising them to the mouth was one thing, but the postprandial habit of picking one's teeth with a knifepoint finally caused Richelieu to snap. According to a 1975 exhibition catalogue from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "even as distinguished a guest as Chancellor Séguier" was prone to doing it. Richelieu wanted it stamped out.

* Polite society followed Richelieu's lead. This change may have been accelerated by the acceptance of the humble fork; for years the fork had been regarded with suspicion or mocked as useless, but finally it was acknowledged as being pretty good at stabbing items of food. In 1669, Louis XIV banned pointed knives altogether in an attempt to curb excessive violence, both on the street and domestically; as a consequence, the old-style pointy knife would no longer have a place at the dining table, either in Europe or the new American colonies. (Unless, presumably, you were eating a steak).

@rhodri

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