The invention of the table knife

One tends to think of everyday objects that are not technologically advanced as if they had somehow more or less accidentally come into being, not that they were designed by someone. Take for example the common table/dinner/butter knife. It appears that it was invented by Cardinal Richelieu in 1637.

Perhaps weary of watching dinner guests picking their teeth with the points of their daggers, Cardinal Richelieu orders the blades of his dinnerware to be ground down and rounded off. Et voilà, the modern dinner knife is born.

Prior to Richelieu’s flash of inspiration (or simple revulsion at bad manners), diners typically used hunting daggers to spear their morsels, which were then conveyed to the mouth by hand or with the help of a spoon. The fork, the implement that really revolutionized chowing down, had existed since biblical times. Despite its utility, however, the fork remained a relative rarity in the West until the 17th century, even among the French royals whom Richelieu served with unswerving devotion.

Richelieu’s knives became the rage among the court, and soon everyone who was anyone in France had a set. The dinner knife became commonplace throughout France after Louis XIV — who, like most kings, had his own reasons for not wanting sharp blades and pointed tips around — decreed its universality. Soon afterward, the dinner knife found its way throughout continental Europe to England and, eventually, the American colonies.

So there you are. An answer to a question that you may have never thought to ask.


  1. says

    I don’t know about eating with a dagger; they’re generally pretty stabby not slicey. It coukd substitute for a fork, though.
    I used to do reenactment and most of us carried generic utility slicers (i.e.: a seax) for eating and slicing and whatnot.
    The difference between a mankilling knife and a utility knife is considerable in terms of construction -- thicker spines and heavy tangs, to support the weight of the victim.
    Richelieu was a very elegant man, and as a cardinal, he would have mostly wanted to keep his spiffy red gloves clean.

  2. Tethys says

    Only pirates pick their teeth with daggers, if you slip the results could be far worse than a bit of food stuck in your teeth. Forks weren’t common as bread was an eating utensil for the vast majority of medieval Europeans. Large two pronged meat forks were used for cooking, but the pronged table fork was considered an evil foreign Greek thing by the Mother of Theodoric the Great. (As was his wife)

    Of course, few people would put everyday eating utensils into graves in the first place, so they might be invisible in the archeological record.

    toothpicks were a common item way back in Roman eras. Goose quills, metal,, bone, antler, or just use your knife to cut a twig from a tree for tooth cleaning purposes. Fruit trees and birch were woods that are recommended as highly favored for gnawing into a fibrous toothbrush.

    When done you can just drop it in the fire.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Another more questionable heritage from the French court are ties and cravats.
    The Croatian mercenaries tied a colorful cloth around the neck to wipe away sweat, and it became a fashion among aristocrats. Croat = cravat.
    The tie is a part of cloathing that I detest at a nearly visceral level, as it is the ultimate kind of virtue signalling: “Look at me, I demonstrate loyalty to the in-groups by wearing a useless thing around my neck” .
    It serves the same function as the braid worn by all Chinese men during the last dynasty, but is even more useless as it is not physically a part of the body.

  4. cafebabe says

    Slightly related: one of the jokes most voted as best joke from this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Festival went as follows …

    “I used to live a hand-to-mouth existence, but not any more.”
    “Know what made the difference? (pause) Cutlery.”

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