This wonderful dagger was made during the 1500s and is known as a ‘bollock dagger’. The name, although slightly alarming, is more descriptive than utilitarian. These daggers were so-called because of the pair of lobes at the base of the haft, or handle. They are also known as ballock daggers, or kidney daggers.
Bollock daggers were used throughout the northernmost parts of Europe, including the British Isles, from as early as the 1300s up to the 1800s. They were particular popular during the Tudor Period in England and a large number were discovered on the wreck of the Mary Rose . This example was found in Holland in the early 20th century. The bollock dagger was commonly used as a backup to the lance or sword. Only gentlemen were permitted to carry swords in Shakespeare’s day but many men would have carried daggers like this one.
This example has a triangular section iron blade and a haft made of turned walrus ivory with a small brass knop, it is just under 30cm long and very lightweight. The grip of the ivory haft is worn where it has been handled over the years and there is a split at the base. The use of walrus ivory for the haft is interesting as it does not seem to have been a commonly used material. Instead, similar daggers in other collections across the UK tend to have wooden hafts. Horn, elephant ivory, bone and metal were also used. It would originally have had a sheath, most probably made of leather. The everyday usefulness of a dagger like this is attested to by the fact that some surviving sheaths also have pockets for other necessary items such as a knife and fork set or a pick.
Perhaps Shakespeare himself carried a dagger like this one. There are tantalising stories about Shakespeare getting into various scrapes – poaching deer at Charlecote Park and being the subject of a 16th century restraining order amongst others – but no real evidence that he led anything other than a peaceful and law abiding life. London’s South Bank was a notorious area for roistering and drinking. It was home to London’s theatres, bear pits, taverns and brothels. Shakespeare would have been very familiar with this area and no doubt witnessed the occasional fight. Young men, out having a good time and drinking a little too much must have been just as likely to get into trouble as they are today. The violence that ensued must have frequently had grave consequences when it was fashionable to wear a dagger, or even a sword, as part of your everyday dress.
References to daggers are made in several of Shakespeare’s plays including Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare often used the word as part of a metaphor so that we find Hamlet saying ‘I will speak daggers to her, but use none’ in Act 3, scene 2. Or Donalbain remarking ‘there’s daggers in men’s smiles’ in Macbeth, Act 2, scene 3. The use of the word in this manner evokes threat and provides the audience with a sense of danger and the potential for harm.
Daggers feature in pivotal scenes in Macbeth and Julius Caesar. In the former, struggling with his decision to kill Duncan, Macbeth talks of seeing a bloodied dagger in front of him (‘Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?’, Act 2, scene 1). His later description of the scene is very evocative of the damage such weapons could do:
‘...Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance; there, the murderers,
Steep’d in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech’d with gore...’
Macbeth, Act 2, scene 3
The untimely deaths brought about by blades in many of Shakespeare’s plays emphasise to a modern audience the dangers that Shakespeare would have been familiar with. From the hot headed youths of Romeo and Juliet to the political machinations of Macbeth, Shakespeare lived in a world where violent death was much more visible, and even intentionally public.
Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects: Number 39, ‘Spanish’ rapiers
BBC Radio 4’s Shakespeare’s Restless World – Swordplay and Swagger
Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?’— Macbeth, Act 2 scene I