Erin Healy Blog

Medieval Diners Sang Grace From Notation Knives

The V&A Museum in London is in possession of a rare notation knife.

Notation knives dating from the mid-16th century were used to sing a pre-meal blessing and a post-meal grace. This example is on display at the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

They’re called notation knives, and they’re engraved with what amounts to sheet music for multi-voiced song. They’re indicative of the formal role music played in medieval dining, according to Flora Dennis, an art historian and author of the book “Re-thinking Renaissance Objects: Design, Function and Meaning.” Holding the knife in the left hand, edge up, diners could see the notes and lyrics for the benediction, or blessing, sung before a meal. After the meal, again held in the left hand, edge down, the knife showed the music for the grace, thanking God for his generosity. Since cutting was done with the right hand, the knives may have been ritualistically transferred to the left hand, or they may have been solely used for singing purposes. Dating from the mid-1500s, one notation knife is on display at the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum in London, where Ms. Dennis works. There are others—seven in Paris, three in Philadelphia, two in The Hague, one in Austria, some in private collections—but as much as is known, much more remains unanswered about these rare items.

In addition to the 16 surviving notation knives, there are also written references to at least four others, according to Ms. Dennis. Essentially, though, the knives have been overlooked by historians because they don’t fit neatly into either “knives” or “music” and have been relegated to curiosity status. All the notation knives share a similar look. The steel blades are broad with straight spines and triangular points on center. According to V&A curator Kristen Kalber they may have been used to proffer a slice of meat to a diner, the point skewering the serving. Then again, squires normally carved meat and that was a highly skilled, status-imbued position. Carving rose to the level of entertainment with offerings carved from cooked fowls and beasts held aloft on forks. So, while some knives seem not to have been used other than to sing from, others show wear on the point and were definitely used.

Museum Curator And Historian Bring Notation Knife To Life

In this 2009 video V&A Museum curator Kristen Kalber shows the notation knife in the museum’s collection and demonstrates its use. Flora Dennis, an art historian at the museum, discusses the project that allowed the music on the knife to be recorded. Ms. Dennis holds a PhD in musicology, specializing in early music, and through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant she was able to convert the music into modern notation, and then work with the Royal College of Music to bring it to life.

The points and the bolsters are engraved with leaf scrolls and strapwork, often gilded. The handles are made of ivory and green-dyed horn or bone with copper or brass spacers. The ivory is decorated with foliage, empty tablets of scrolls, Arabic or Moorish designs or winged cherub heads inlaid in black. The pommels are adorned with silver spherical knobs. The engravings are usually in Latin, though some are in the vernacular. The one from the V&A reads Benedictio mensae (The blessing of the table) on one side and Gratiarum actio (The saying of grace) on the other. The musical stave runs the length of the blade. In the upper right is the voice part, in this case “Tenor.” What this means is that there were different knives for different voices, in some cases as few as five or six or substantially more than 20.

Royal College Of Music Singers Record Two Versions Of The Meal Benediction

 

Knifemakers across Europe at the time would have been members of guilds and were specialized. Handles would have been made separately and assembled by the cutler who sold them. Ms. Dennis’ writings detail how challenging it can be to pinpoint where the notation knives were made or by whom. Knives were being made in Solingen and Nuremberg, Germany, and in Milan and Brescia, Italy. Possible guild marks show up in the form of arrows, fluers-de-lis or clovers, and etched Ns can be found on many of the blades, but those are more likely an engraver’s mark. One of Ms. Dennis’ knife consultants intimated that a Nuremberg mark would be on the tang, not the blade. The best guess is that they were made in France, with Italianate influence or for an Italian patron.

Were the knives collected after the gathering or did each singer keep his or her knife? In Ms. Dennis’ summation, judging by the scattering of surviving pieces, the latter might be more likely. It could also be that the knives were made for a group, such a monastery. In some instances, the strict, mass-like approach to such a shared meal could result in latecomers being fined for missing the benediction. What is clear is that the knives are not all from the same musical piece; there are two separate pieces of music represented by the known notation knives.

Royal College Of Music Singers Record Two Versions Of The Meal Grace

 

Interestingly, the notation knives are representative of both coming together and separating. It is the very nature of a knife to cut apart, but in this instance it is for the purpose of sharing, both repast and praise.

As Ms. Dennis writes:

“Benediction and Grace texts are inherently collective, expressing notions of conviviality and sharing. The knives reiterate this idea, needing to be brought together in a social context in order for their music to function. Simultaneously, however, they represent a contradictory action of dismembering and dividing. By slicing meat, the knives permit it to be shared between the gathered company in the same way that dismembering and scattering the musical text across the knives enabled a group to perform it collectively. The acts of uniting to say the Benediction and Grace, uniting to eat, and uniting to sing become inextricably intertwined with those of separating, dividing and sharing both meat and music.”

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