Today's post is by Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.
Oh, there is a noble man in town, one Paris,
that would fain lay knife aboard; but she,
good soul, had as lief see a toad, a very toad,
as see him.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 4
The sixteenth century was a time when it was not unusual for people to carry around their own cutlery and most people carried a knife with them in their day to day lives. This practical object could be carried in a variety of ways depending on your position in society – leather sheaths for the commoner, silken sheaths with gold embroidery for the nobility. Knives were also given as wedding tokens, either for the bride to wear, or to commemorate the betrothal. And, as the nurse from Romeo and Juliet observes, the knife could also carry sexual meanings.
This wooden sheath was probably owned by a woman from a prosperous family of the middling-sort in society. It is carved in box wood, and dated 1602, with the initials ‘W.G.W.’ inscribed near the tip. These are probably the initials of the maker, who exported items to England from Flanders. On the inner side are six illustrations of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and on the opposite side, are six illustrations of the Works of Mercy, works of charity based on Christ’s teachings.
As you can see from this sketch of a woman by Hans Holbein, it was fashionable in Europe to wear this sort of wooden sheath suspended from a long belt or girdle. This unmarried woman wears an empty sheath which probably acted as a sign – approved by her parents – of her virginal state and availability for marriage.
In another,slightly later image, this time of a married woman in her own home, the sheath hanging from her girdle contains a knife alongside a bunch of keys, no doubt for the doors of the home itself, or the coffers and cupboards. In addition to keys, purses and scented bags, devotional items such as prayer books would also have been suspended from the belt. The religious imagery on this sheath means that as well as a symbol of marital identity it also demonstrates the piety and morality of the owner.
Hans Holbein, Basel Women turned to the left, c. 1523
Jacques de Gheyn, Family saying grace, detail, c. 1600