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Scattered knives and dismembered song: cutlery, music and the rituals of dining

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One of the rarest sixteenth-century objects going into the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries has a dual identity: it is both a knife and a piece of music. On one side of its broad blade is a clear, perfectly notated musical setting of a blessing of the table, to be sung before a meal; on the other, a prayer giving thanks, to be sung when the meal has ended. This knife is usually presented as a single item. However, the inscription ‘.i.9[primus] tenor’ implies the existence of other voices, suggesting that it was once part of a larger set of knives, each of which bore one part of a complete polyphonic, or multi-voiced, song. This article confirms that the V&A's knife is one of at least twenty examples surviving in other museums and collections or published during the nineteenth century, and is the first study to consider them as a group. It explores the possible social and symbolic functions of these distinctive objects, relating them to contemporary dining practices, and situates them in the context of broader relationships between music and the material culture of the table during the sixteenth century.
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Keywords: dining; inscriptions; knives; material culture; music; ritual

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Sussex

Publication date: February 1, 2010

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