On the Provenance of Prickers...

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Chris, yclept John Barber
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On the Provenance of Prickers...

Post by Chris, yclept John Barber »

(Not as rude as the title may sound!)

For those who don't know, the prickers I am referring to are single spikes, about four inches long, used at the dining table for spearing food from communal trays.

Suddenly they're everywhere. At TORM last weekend, they must have been on at least a dozen stands. (And yes, I fell for them and acquired a very nice matched pair of eating knife and pricker from the Two J's.)

But the question is: where do they come from? We've always told MOPs that forks haven't come to England yet (1483). They are a Renaissance invention known only in Italy at the time, and they appeared in England in Tudor times.

But what about prickers? Are they a foppish foreign import? A re-enactorism? Or can someone actually come up with a medieval English provenance?
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Post by Thomas Hayman »

See this discussion for others points of view.

http://www.wolfeargent.com/cgi-bin/ulti ... 7&t=000400

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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

In polite circles one has ones food daintily cut up before it reaches ones table, hence not requiring such a tool.
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Post by Grymm »

A steel for retouching your knife is my guess or an awl but no mention of them in manners books of the period. Another one of those 'nactorisms that have been told so often they become accepted as fact.
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Post by Chris, yclept John Barber »

Thanks for that link Thomas. To summarise my understanding of the info in that thread: prickers were not only known but common in medieval England, but never illustrated or mentioned in contemporary documents. (If it weren't for inconvenient archaeological finds and survival of actual sets, they could be written off completely!)

So they are authentic, but most people's use of them is a re-enactorism. They wouldn't have been brought to table, but used in the kitchen in the role of a modern carving-fork to hold the food still while it was cut into bite-sized pieces. Only those bite-sized pieces would go to the table, so there would be no use for prickers as tableware.

Right. But until we persuade our cooks to cut all our food up into authentically-sized pieces, I suspect people will continue to use them. But at least now I know enough to explain that we're wrong to the MOPs.
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Post by Colin Middleton »

I got the impression that what Chris said was correct for a banquet, but that there wasn't much said about other uses.

Does anyone know about the context of the archeological finds? I forgot to have a look for them last night. There could be big clues there, as well as the books of etiquette, paintings of feats and wills that seemed to be the main sources for the discussion on the link.

Either way, I think we probably are using them incorrectly. The impression I'm given is that the knife and pricker (or awl) are used to cut the food up (either by you or your server), and then set asside while you eat with your spoon and fingers.

I seem to recall that our usual use for prickers was to clear a path to the table. :D
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Post by Grymm »

Chris, yclept John Barber wrote:, but used in the kitchen in the role of a modern carving-fork to hold the food still while it was cut into bite-sized pieces.
The boke of keruynge instructs the carver to steady the meat with the thumb and two fingers of his left hand whilst carving, again, no prickers mentioned but does mention that the knife is to be sharp......pointing towards a steel for retouching the edge plus some 'prickers turn up associated with swords and falchiony type things? The manners books I've read tell the diner to cut it up into 'faire gobbets'(thats what your trencher is for) not the carver.
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Post by gregory23b »

Given the way meat is cut up and that fingers are used - hence the napery and wash bowls, a pricker is not really needed in the pinning context.
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Post by guthrie »

It would be nice to know more about the archaeological finds. Have they done proper metallurgical analysis to determine what kind of steel it is? I imagine that you need a different type for honing blades than for stabbing things.

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Post by Grymm »

http://milkmama.tripod.com/kervynge2.html this link should take you to a transcription of The boke of keruynge.
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Post by Phil the Grips »

I have always considered my pricker as a "thing doer"- the equivalent of a sailor's spike for undoing knots, making holes, poking things with, unfouling things and the like.

The only time it goes near food is to jab slow folk out of the way at mealtimes, reach over to plates that are just a bit too far away and defend my food from wandering hands of others (maybe this is why I don't get to "toptable";))
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Post by James Bretlington »

Grymm wrote:
The boke of keruynge instructs the carver to steady the meat with the thumb and two fingers of his left hand whilst carving, again, no prickers mentioned but does mention that the knife is to be sharp......pointing towards a steel for retouching the edge plus some 'prickers turn up associated with swords and falchiony type things? The manners books I've read tell the diner to cut it up into 'faire gobbets'(thats what your trencher is for) not the carver.
The pricker, or a second small knife would be used when cutting 'noble meats' (venison in particular, but possibly also beef) as according to the boke of keruynge, the carver could not touch these meats.

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Post by Karen Larsdatter »

James Bretlington wrote:The pricker, or a second small knife would be used when cutting 'noble meats' (venison in particular, but possibly also beef) as according to the boke of keruynge, the carver could not touch these meats.
But why not carving-forks? (See http://larsdatter.com/cutlery.htm for some meat-carving sets; I do need to add some late medieval illustrations showing a carver using a fork and knife.)

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Post by robin wood »

This is an interesting discussion. I too would be very interested to hear about the context and frequency of archaeological finds. How many prickers have been found compared say to knives?

I find the recreating of food and eating tends to rely heavily on the written sources and illustrations but this skews things very heavily towards high class dining. Fine if that is what you want to depict but I would have thought many folk were trying to depict everyday eating for ordinary people.

Sadly we have few illustrations of ordinary people eating until Breugal but we can draw conclusions from the archaeological record. We know tables were uncommon in normal homes before the 16th century and so were plates and wooden trenchers. Wooden bowls and knives are comparatively common finds despite poor survival in the ground. Personally I think we see far too man folk eating from plates on tables with napkins and not enough squatting on the ground or stool with bowl in hand.

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Post by Colin Middleton »

What is the cross sectional shape of a pricker 'blade'? That alone could give us clues.
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Post by James Bretlington »

Karen, I think the quote you have on your own page seems to show a fork was not commonly used out side of Italy, and that seems to be a consensus. I'd be interested in seeing some pictures of carving forks though, as using the second knife is not the most stable way of carving.

Part of what I do is to actually play the role of a carver in a household staff at the Florida Ren fair, so we do tend to go for the napkins and plates, but then we are presenting a 'cut down' version of a late medieval feast whilst serving those playing the nobles.

We also provide somewhere for the peasant characters to sit and have something to eat whilst still in character, and do provide some (real medieval) food as well. And we insist on wooden bowls, which we provide ourselves.

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Post by Karen Larsdatter »

James Bretlington wrote:Karen, I think the quote you have on your own page seems to show a fork was not commonly used out side of Italy, and that seems to be a consensus. I'd be interested in seeing some pictures of carving forks though, as using the second knife is not the most stable way of carving.
Well, I think that quote has more to do with an individual diner eating with the fork, rather than a servant using it as a tool to carve meats, etc. -- much in the same way we don't see people using an individual presentoir to shovel food in their mouths, but we do see the presentoir used to carry meat (or bread, etc.) from where it is sliced to where it is served.

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Post by gregory23b »

There is a big difference between a carving fork and an eating one. A 'pricker' to hold down a chicken while you carve seems like a messy operation.
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Post by James Bretlington »

Except a chicken is held by the left hand, so that is actually easy.

However, having used a small knife to hold beef and venison whilst you carve it, which in both cases results in a series of smal cubes of meat, it does take some practice, and can be done cleanly.

Karen, I see your point, so please pass on anything you find about carving forks.

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Post by gregory23b »

yeah ok, I think you get what what I was saying.

For a large piece of meat, say off a spit, a spike is not going to be as efficient as a fork, as in carving for feast and non-feast service, messes etc.


As for forks in general use, green ginger seems a useful application


(1443) Will York in Sur.Soc.30 132: Also ij forkes for grene gynger, of silver.

(1463) Will Bury in Camd.49 40: J yeve and beqwethe..my silvir forke for grene gyngour.

Interesting as the thread has itself forked, one way to tines and prongs and the other to spikes.
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Post by James Bretlington »

That's a good point as well. The good Boke copy I have has the illustrations showing the meat being carved, and for the venison, it has definately been pre carved in to a managable joint or side before it is taken to the carver.

We may use the forks for ginger and comfits this year, thanks for that reference.

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Post by Karen Larsdatter »

gregory23b wrote:As for forks in general use, green ginger seems a useful application

(1443) Will York in Sur.Soc.30 132: Also ij forkes for grene gynger, of silver.

(1463) Will Bury in Camd.49 40: J yeve and beqwethe..my silvir forke for grene gyngour.
Would this be a small sucket-fork, or a large fork (like the forks that appear with carving sets)?

(Both varieties appear in the links at http://www.larsdatter.com/cutlery.htm FWIW; also, see http://www.larsdatter.com/gifts/index.htm for references to the pots of green ginger that were given to Queen Elizabeth as New Year's gifts by her doctors and/or apothecary, just about every year in those records.)

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Post by Gandi »

James Bretlington wrote:That's a good point as well. The good Boke copy I have has the illustrations showing the meat being carved
I'd be interested to know the details of the book James as the two copies I have only have an illustrated frontis piece
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Post by James Bretlington »

I have a copy of the Southover Press edition, with an intro by Peter Brears. The illustrations are an addition to clarify points made in the text, and are very informative. ISBN is 1870962192.

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Post by gregory23b »

Karen, only guessing here, but green ginger was the preserved sweatmeat sort, and is not large sized even when not cut up, I interpret that as a small sucket fork, to get the bits out. Seems highly specialist to list a fork just for green ginger. Also they are listed as silver, which makes them a bit special.

I oove the Charles the bold knife, sorts that pricker thing out for me, at least on that knife, makes much more sense than a spike as such.
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Post by Gandi »

James Bretlington wrote:I have a copy of the Southover Press edition, with an intro by Peter Brears. The illustrations are an addition to clarify points made in the text, and are very informative. ISBN is 1870962192.
I kinda thought it would be that book.....It's pretty good and Peter really does know his stuff, shame he just can't draw people (all his other drawings are always spot on though, just not a master of the human form!)

Just a word of caution....use the text, don't rely on the illustrations!
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Post by Lady Cecily »

I met Peter Brears last year and he was very much of the opinion that the 'pricker' is a re-enactorism. I did have a look at the time for survivals in the archaeological record and couldn't find any.

Metal spikes are invariably interpreted as awls. I'm not convinced of their use in food consumption.
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Post by James Bretlington »

Lady Cecily, I tend to use a smaller knife, as that matches what I have seen in other images/descriptions.

Gandi, I'm using a conglomeration of both, as some of the text is a touch cryptic.

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Post by Brother Ranulf »

I missed this thread when it first appeared (must have been up a ladder with a roll of wallpaper) -

a few observations to be made:

In "monasteriales indicia", the English (Benedictine) monastic sign language, sign number 56 says "If you want a skewer, then move your hand as if you were eating with a skewer." This follows the sign for a knife and comes immediately before boiled vegetables, in the section devoted to eating and foods in general. Eating with a skewer must therefore have been not only common practice, but an everyday requirement in monasteries. Signs were especially important during meals, when silence was required except for the daily readings.

Monastic practice tends to reflect middle and lower class social habits rather than aristocratic ones, at least in theory - this is reflected in the materials used in clothing, for instance. This tends to indicate the use of skewers by those below the nobility.

Secondly, in reading about the history of dogwood and its uses, I was interested to read that it was "the wood traditionally used in England for skewers, since it dries as hard as horn (hence its Latin name cornus) and is unlikely to splinter".

As Robin pointed out, wooden utensils do not survive well archaeologically, so it is lucky that we have documents to fill the gaps.

I am currently seasoning some dogwood skewers to see how well the theory stands up in practice.
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