Which Historical Knife Do I Buy?

This is a very general and very brief overview of knives over different time periods, this may help you to identify which knife to buy it won’t let you prepare a University thesis, but it will help reenactors choose a knife; to this end it is short and so has glaring generalisations.

When choosing a knife consider who you are, how rich you are, how well travelled you are and how important that knife is to your character. I have divided the world into the following sections:

  • General peasant
  • Middle class
  • Professional soldier
  • Gentry
  • Women (I am not being sexist but Women used fewer and sometimes different knives)
img - eating knife

Peasants have no money, so they will have one knife that will do most of what they want and this is definitely not a dagger. Daggers are largely useless for anything other than stabbing. You may have enough money for a dagger as well, in which case try to get a suitably low/old fashioned one; remember, the poorer you are the slower your class is to adopt the new products. You will have a plain eating knife with some decoration on the scabbard.

img - bollock dagger

Middle class have more money and more options. You will have an eating knife and a dagger, the dagger is likely to be of a more civilian form. The eating knife will be of finer construction, may have some decoration and will have a decorated scabbard.

Professional soldiers may be poor to very rich so choose according to where your character might have been and what he did when he was there. He will have a dagger and eating knife; the dagger is more likely, but not necessarily of a military form and the eating knife is likely to be of finer construction, may have some decoration and will have a decorated scabbard. You are likely to have travelled, so you may have something a little more exotic.

img - rondel dagger

Gentry have lots of money, aspire to military prowess and are likely to have travelled, so basically buy whatever you want of European manufacture and you will be fine. You are less likely to have an eating knife on your person as you will have servants to carry it, but daggers are status items and so you will wear one and more likely because of your martial interests, it will be of a military form.

Women carried eating knives and working knives associated with their craft with no discernable difference with those of men, however they never carried daggers except possibly camp followers, whores etc, but certainly no woman of any repute would have one. Please, please never ask me for a ‘bodice dagger’.

The most common handle woods are box, holly and root woods due to their hardness, exotic woods were used in small quantities for its status as were precious metals. Horn was harder to work and more expensive than wood so is less common. Bone is cheap, looks good and is hard and so was quite common. Handles were almost always smaller than modern equivalents.

Leather was almost always decorated and either dyed or painted. Cheap decoration would be done by the owner using a knife to cut or press patterns in and these were often very badly executed, more expensive would be for the leather worker to make patterns using a knife and the most expensive would be stamping and carving. However, relative to the cost of the knife the decoration would not be much so most people can have quite decorated scabbards. The most common colours for leather are natural (goes brown after a few months) or black using iron salts.

img - eating set

There was a great deal of trading across Europe so like any other commodity, knives travelled. The further from the place of manufacture the more exotic and therefore expensive an item is, so if you are a peasant just because you would like an Italian ear dagger doesn’t mean you could have plausibly had one, your Lord on the other hand possibly could.

Table manners were probably as important then than now and there were etiquette books written as far back as the 1300’s about how you should behave at table. Things you should not do; use rusty or dirty implements, reach across other peoples plates, have dirty hands, use a dagger, belch or fart; please remember only in Hollywood do people throw bones over their shoulders, stab their food with daggers and burp in their neighbours ear.

A timeline of knives starting about 900AD in the London area.

Knives are made either as whittle tang or scale tang. In whittle tang the part of the blade that fits into the handle narrows steadily as it goes from the front of the handle to the end furthest from the knife point. Imagine a funnel shaped hole is made in a single piece of wood (handle) and the blade made to fit this hole. In scale tang, the part of the blade that becomes the handle is flattened and a piece of wood fixed to either side. For reasons that I cannot really fathom swords and daggers were almost always made using the whittle tang method, but personal and eating knives change construction method through the centuries.

img - seax

900 - 1150AD – Almost all knives and daggers are constructed using the whittle tang method where a part of the blade fits into a hole in the handle. Britain is highly influenced by Saxon and Scandinavian peoples so their knife forms are common. Blade shapes and decoration vary from area to area but the knives are basically very similar. Short knives are hung vertically from the belt by a single point, larger knives are hung horizontally using two or more points.

Whatever the status of the individual the shape of knives were very similar and tended to differ only on the level and quality of decoration and the materials used.

img - steel knife

1150 – 1250AD - Almost all knives and daggers are constructed using the whittle tang method where a part of the blade fits into a hole in the handle. Britain was until recently highly influenced by Saxon and Scandinavian peoples so their knife forms are evident in knives of this period but British knives are now developing independently of these influences. Most knives are now hung vertically from a thong, a few have slit scabbards to allow a belt to pass through and some were carried attached to a belt pouch.

img - pricker and knife

At the beginning of this period eating knives are generally of whittle tang construction and right at the end richer people started to have scale tang knives. Military daggers were usually similar in form to swords, civilian daggers were generally a single sided blade with whittle tang fitted into a handle and were pretty basic.

1250-1400AD – This is a time of change for eating knife construction and by 1400 almost all eating knives and most working knives are of scale tang construction and the 1300’s in particular seems to be a time of weird blade shapes and very small eating knives. Probably the pricker (single tine fork predecessor) came in during this period.

img - quillon

From about 1300 the baselard starts to appear; this is a dagger form that has a capital I shaped handle and was very popular across Northern Europe at the same time the bollock dagger comes in. Baselards were generally associated with lower grade military people such as men at arms and bollock daggers were generally lower and middle class civilian arms. Daggers in the form of small swords (Quillon daggers) remained popular and during the 1300’s a sort of proto-rondel with a single disc developed and by the late 14th Century it became a rondel proper. A suitable peasant dagger would be a single sided whittle tang design.

1400-1550AD – Eating knives are now all scale tang unless you are really poor. The blades are starting to get longer and thinner by the late 1400’s and then start to get broader again by 1550. Daggers have continued along the same lines so are generally whittle tang and military forms are the rondel and the Quillon with the bollock dagger being both military and civilian. Toward the end of this period bollock daggers are more regularly seen in high status situations.

img - bollock dagger

The large amount of fighting right across Europe at this time means that arms were exported and generally moved about a great deal, in large scale by merchants and in small scale by individual soldiers. This means that pretty much any weapon is plausible for professional soldiers, merchants trading internationally and gentry. This means that ear daggers, holbein daggers, bauernwehr and hauswehr, and other oddities are all possibilities. Peasants as ever may have a cheap dagger to stick people with, this may still be of a simple whittle tang form or bollock dagger.

1550 - 1600 – Again this is a time of change where at the end of this period eating knife blades are becoming rounder with much more prominent bolsters, almost the shape of an old bone handled dinner knife that your granny had.

Daggers are going through a massive change due to the introduction of the rapier. The old Quillon dagger that was previously a second weapon if you couldn’t use your sword now becomes a second weapon used in conjunction with the rapier, so that it is used in the left hand and is usually called a left hand dagger or main gauche. The dagger is now held firmly to the belt by a frog or fitting, allowing it to be drawn with the left hand. They also have a thumb ring fitted to the Quillon guard that is characteristic of the style and is the start of the more complex guard forms of the late 16th and17th Centuries. The rondel starts to be phased out and the bollock dagger becomes the dudgeon dagger that goes on to become the Scottish dirk.

img - 17th century eating knives

If you are civilian a bollock dagger, Quillon or if rich, a main gauche are suitable, a soldier may still have old fashioned Quillon daggers or bollock daggers, but more likely an early type main gauche and gentry would have a main gauche. Peasants as ever may have a cheap dagger to stick people with, this may still be of a simple whittle tang form or bollock dagger.

1600 – 1670AD – Eating knives have now moved back to the whittle tang style of manufacture and remained with a rounded blade and prominent bolster.

All the daggers available now fit either as military or civilian items; main gauche with complex guards for those that have rapiers, stilettos for the posh or simple main gauche for most others. Again European knives particularly German and Low Countries items will be occasionally available. The Scottish had developed the bollock dagger into the dudgeon by the start of this period and the dirk by the end of it.