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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Elizabethan Penknife

Object 68 - Read about the 17th century penknife held in the collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Victoria Jackson

This post looks at the subject of penknives and was written by Victoria Jackson from the History Department at the University of Birmingham.

"A Game of Mumblety Peg Anyone?"

SBT 1994-4 Peniknife; An Elizabethan penknife from Southwark, London

The steel folding penknife shown here was discovered in Southwark, London, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust dates it to c.1600.  Originally, penknives had fixed, non-moveable blades attached to long handles and were intended to prepare a quill as a writing instrument. This late seventeenth century Dutch penknife in the V&A collection looks very similar to a modern letter opener, although this penknife is adorned with a nude female figure - a design modern letter openers don’t usually employ!  With your penknife you could cut or sharpen a quill to create a pen nib (the reservoir of ink at the end of the quill).  But, like a letter opener, this object had a non-moveable blade.

The penknife in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's collection is different; it has a collapsible blade designed to fold back into its handle when not in use and is more like a modern pocket knife.  (Unfortunately, due to corrosion and damage its blade is no longer fully moveable).  It bears what is called a ‘cutler’s mark’.  Cutlers were designers and craftsmen of cutting instruments, such as weapons, cutlery, razors, and scissors.  The cutler’s mark on this penknife – a fleur-de-lis and a cross – signifies the craftsman or possibly seller of this particular knife who was a member of the Cutlers Company in England, although his identity is unknown.  It is suggested that folding penknives evolved from the fixed blade penknives, creating a knife that was transportable, easy to slip into your pocket or purse, and multi-functional.

When we think of modern penknives we might think about the Swiss Army Knife which may have single or multiple blades and many additional tools and acts like a small tool kit in your pocket. Looking into the different ways early modern people might have used their penknives reveals a fascinating and slightly frightening use: a game played in England originating in the 17th century called mumble-the-peg and, later ‘mumblety peg’  as defined by the merriam-webster online dictionary.  In this game of skill, most often played by children, players flipped or tossed a penknife in a progression of moves.  The objective of the game was to land the blade of the penknife vertically in the ground.  As the game progressed, the positions in which the player had to toss the knife into the air increased in difficulty.  Some positions recorded are: tossing the knife from your palm, the back of your hand, from between your teeth (!), or flipping it backwards from your head.  A peg was driven into the ground by the winner and the unfortunate loser had to pull the peg out…with his teeth.  This is certainly not a game most parents would feel comfortable with their children playing today!