Does it bother you that the person sitting next to you at the dinner table has a knife? Probably not. After all, you have one too. But more than that, the knife within easy grasp of you neighbor is about as sharp as a cotton ball. Not much of a threat. But in the old days, the knives used at table were not so tame.
And that’s because they were meant to be used to do more than spread butter. During the Renaissance and before, both men and women carried their knives with them, usually worn in a sheath hanging from a belt. The knife used to spear meat and cut crusty rock- hard bread at the table might also be used for self-defense a few minutes later. Knives were personal instruments and generally not shared—food historian Bee Wilson says, “you would no more eat with another person’s knife than you would brush your teeth today with a stranger’s toothbrush.” There were no forks, so diners speared food with their knives and ate right off the end, hopefully without spearing their tongues at the same time.
When the process of making carbonized steel became industrialized in the 1600 and 1700s, manufacturers started producing a range of more specialized knives. This made it easier to shuck oysters, pare potatoes or butcher a haunch of venison. Cooking styles changed and dishes presented at table didn’t need as much cutting, at least if they were prepared by a fashionable French chef. And fashion began to dictate that hosts laid matching knives on the table for their guests to use, paired with a new invention, the fork. Along with the fashion for impersonal knives came another fashion – knives that were less sharp. As Wilson observes, “[i]t takes a civilization in an advanced state of politesse—or passive aggression—to devise on purpose a knife that does a worse job of cutting.”
Supposedly, the reason for the blunt table knives is that Cardinal Richelieu, chief advisor to Louis XIII (yes, the one from The Three Musketeers) was horrified to witness a dinner guest using a knife to pick his teeth. So he ordered that all his own table knives should be made blunt. The next king, Louis XIV, went a step further in 1669 and forbid all cutlers in the country from forging pointed dinner knives. By the 1700s, knives were rarely seen at all on the dinner tables in France, and in England, they were so blunt as to be useless for everything except spreading jam and butter.
And that’s where we are today – if we actually need to cut something with a knife, we need to get a specialized steak knife or serrated bread knife. Believe it or not, this evolution in table knife fashion actually changed the way our teeth work. Orthodontists today strive to maneuver teeth into a “perfect” overbite where the top incisors overlap the bottom ones. But for thousands of years, the majority of human teeth functioned with an edge-to-edge bite, where the top and bottom incisors clamped together like two cutting blades. Studies of skeletal remains show that the change in biting pattern began with the upper classes in the late 18th Century, at about the same time that it became fashionable to cut food in to small bites and shovel it into the mouth rather than grip it with the teeth and tear off a bite. In a very short period of time, the evolution of table manner actually influenced the evolution of the human jaw. It’s a little frightening to contemplate the changes that could be wrought in the human body by other fashions. I don’t even want to think about it.
But I will think next time I pick up an unused knife at the dinner table. How the mighty have fallen!
Much of the information in the article came from Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson