OK, yes this is a gun page. But gun people tend to like knives too and besides, I had nowhere else to publish this.
I’ve been a knifemaker for around thirty years, and have specialized in knives and swords of the Viking Era and European Middle Ages. Not just the weapons, mind you, but the tools carried and used by everyday people. I have been studying medieval edged tools and weapons since High School. I’ve looked at thousands of images in books and online as well as antiques in museums and private collections. I’ve studied and done practical experiments in the uses of these knives in day-to-day medieval life. I have actually quoted 13th C. Guild law of the London cutlers in conversation. . Yes, I am that big of a nerd. I feel I’m fairly well informed on the subject, at least as much as a layman can be. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about these knives and their context in medieval society and commerce. I’m going to try to clear some of that up without actually writing a book.
For our purposes I’m referring to the period between 1000 AD and 1400 AD. The Middle Ages in Europe spanned hundreds of years and a continent; it is not really easy to characterize them accurately in broad terms. While the all-encompassing influence of the Catholic Church did have some homogenizing effect there were differences in different times and places. There was, however, widespread trade and we can make some generalizations about knives in particular.
“Of Course he has a knife! We’ve all got knives!”
The first thing to know about medieval knives is this: Everyone carried a knife. Everyone. Men carried knives. Women carried knives. Children carried knives. They were a necessary tool of day-to-day existence. They were cheap and they were everywhere. Most people carried a knife on their belt, but some carried a folding knife in a pouch. Yes, they had folding knives. People carried knives because they needed them. They were used for everyday cutting tasks, food preparation and consumption etc.
These were not daggers. The medieval dagger was a specialized military weapon and they are actually lousy knives for day-to-day use. Commoners were, sometimes and in some places, actually forbidden to wear them in day to day life. By and large most people neither needed nor could afford a dagger (more on that later.) Later in the period with the rise of the middle class civilian wear of daggers and large fighting knives became more common, but generally for most of the medieval period the average person either didn’t have one or saved it for when they were called to military service.
This article is very specifically about EDC knives used by average people, not the specialized daggers carried by soldiers and guards.
The ‘Typical’ Medieval Knife
There was a lot of variety in knives then as now, but the average sort of knife carried by the average sort of person (meaning commoners) were pretty similar. The blades were most often made of wrought iron with a band of steel forge-welded to the edge. Length was most often between two to four inches, around 1/2″ wide and they were around 1/16th to 3/32″ thick at the spine. The narrow, relatively short tang was inserted into a simple wooden handle and glued in place. They were cheap and serviceable, well suited to everyday cutting chores. Not much of a weapon of course, as blades were thin and relatively easily bent.
A more expensive and less common type shared the wrought-iron construction with the welded-on edge, but had a tang that was the full length and width of the handle. Wood, horn or bone scales were riveted to the sides. The dimensions were similar to the more common knives, though generally with a narrower handle. This style became more common (and often more ornate) in the 14th C. with the rise of the Middle Class.
Whatever their type these were tools, not weapons. This is not to say no one ever defended themselves or murdered someone with them, but they were not a great tool for the job.
These knives, especially the ‘thwittles’ (as the English called the simple narrow-tanged variety,) were relatively inexpensive. They used the minimum amount of metal to get the job done because metal was expensive, especially steel. One needs to remember that, in terms of relative value, for most of this period a sword cost as much as we’d pay for a good-quality sedan today.
There were of course all manner of knives, some larger, some smaller, some made for a trade or specialized function, but in most times and most places the normal person’s knife was likely to be pretty close to what I’ve described.
Folding knives were known, but they do not seem to have been nearly as common as fixed-blade knives and were usually simple ‘friction folders’ without a back-spring or lock to hold them open. Typically they had a short tang protruding from the rear that was clasped against the handle with the thumb to prevent the knife from folding, thus the term ‘clasp knife.’ They seem to have been somewhat more common in urban settings, but were seriously outnumbered by fixed-blade knives
Common knives often had sheathes decorated in simple, easily incised patterns. Knife handles might be similarly decorated. In the simplest knives it is unclear how often these decorations were applied by the seller and how often they were later added by their owners. Persons of greater means carried the same sorts of knives, but these were more likely to be professionally decorated, utilize ‘exotic’ handle materials, precious metals etc. as part of their decoration.
Guilding the Lilly
One factor that must be understood is that the world of commerce was run and managed by Guilds. We once counted up the number of guilds involved in 14th C. England between the time the iron ore was in the ground and the finished knife was in a sheath on a peasant’s belt. Thirteen. I kid you not.
Knife blades were made by Blade Smiths. Handles were put on the blades by Cutlers. Sheaths were made by a Sheather. If the knife or sheath were decorated (beyond simple incised patterns) this would be done by a Furbisher. All of these people had their own Guilds, and these Guilds guarded there prerogatives jealously and violently. Some Masters belonged to multiple Guilds, allowing them to do more of the work in-house.
So you, a peasant, want a knife. You go to the market, find a Cutler’s booth, select a knife and buy it for a penny. Then you go to the Sheather’s booth and find a sheath it more or less fits and fork over a half-penny or so. All of the various Guilds involved have taken their cut, and while those cuts are individually tiny they probably constitute half the value you’ve paid, and they add up over time.
Where to Wear?
Wherever it suited them, most often in a simple sheath dangling from the belt, thrust through the belt and tied in place, tied to the belt or in conjunction with their purse or pouch. A ‘fast draw’ was not really a consideration in most cases, because for an average commoner the knife was not viewed as a weapon. This varied from place to place and in some instances fashion entered into the equation, but for the most part individual convenience seemed to rule the day. Folding knives varied in how common they were, and seem to have been more prevalent in urban settings. These would be carried in a purse or pouch attached to the belt (their equivalent of a trouser-pocket.)
Writing Medieval Knives
Honestly your best bet is to have a mental picture of these knives and write with it in mind rather than describing the actual knives themselves. The only time you really need to go into any detail is if a plot point turns on the blade, at which point you can give the simplest description possible, such as ‘A finger-length wisp of steel, suited to slicing a bit of cheese or coring an apple.’ In some cases the knife bending at an inopportune time could be useful. I think though that for the most part you should know what you are writing about as part of your world-building and express details only as needed in the story.
Things to avoid are terms like ‘eating dagger;’ daggers suck for eating. To even slightly knowledgeable readers such details can break immersion or damage your credibility as a storyteller. Similarly ‘Bodice Daggers’ are a rather silly modern construction of Medieval fairs. A bodice is a dreadful place to keep a knife; if the sheath slips you can cut your breast (I know women this has happened to) and if a man attacks where’s the first place he’ll go? Oh look, now he has a knife. Bad idea.
The great blessing of writing fiction is that people will very often fill in the details for you. It’s usually better to leave such things to their imagination than to misspeak and damage the reader’s belief. But the more firmly you have the details in mind the better you can convey the world and actions of your characters even when you don’t explicitly share those details.
Anyway, stay safe and take care.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 8 March 2022