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The Nef and Prickers

Posted: Wed Aug 29, 2018 2:15 pm
by Capt Bliant
I have been reading "Food in England" by Dorothy Hartley and I came across this; The diners each brought their own "nef" or set of spoons and knife and spike. These "nefs" were elaborate cases, often of great value. As soon as you were old enough to dine in hall, you were given your own nef and special drinking goblet. (Just such a "set of silver mug and spoon" as we give children today when they are christened; a symbol that they come to the Lord's Table for the first time.) There were other drinking cups, some magic ones inset with unicorn's horn, as that was considered a test for poison.
This raised 2 questions in my mind. I have never heard of the NEF? 2 I do 15c re-enactment and have been told the Pricker, or as referred to above Spike, was only used for hunting purposes.
Can anyone shed any light on these 2 questions, please.

Re: The Nef and Prickers

Posted: Wed Aug 29, 2018 9:46 pm
by Brother Ranulf
Medieval tableware has been covered in many threads on this forum, but the origin of "nef" may not have been explained before.

A nef was originally (early 12th century) a type of warship, or simply an Anglo-Norman term for any ship or boat. It came to the table by 1170 as a boat-shaped wine vessel/bowl, or as a container for incense, or later (14th century) a jewelled ornamental ship-shaped container for napkins, condiments and so on. It is also the origin of the term "nave" used for the body of a church, which was likened to the hull of a ship. It comes from Latin navis, a warship.

Since it had become a container, the idea of a nef holding spoons and so on in the 1400s is not at all surprising, but it seems odd to have all the guests bringing their own and I have not seen any period text where it is used in this sense.


This image shows a royal table, with an obviously ship-shaped container, from manuscript De secretis secretorum of 1326 - 27, in the British Library.

As for spoon, knife and "spike", I have previously mentioned tableware that includes a skewer listed in several versions of monastic sign lists throughout the entire medieval period - and I suggested that such things were used at high-status tables everywhere. This view is not shared by many other people on this forum who consider the thought of putting such a thing in the mouth unacceptable; for my own part I believe it was general practice. After all in a time period when many of the commonly-used paint pigments were lethally toxic, a sharp pointed skewer in the mouth seems relatively harmless.

Re: The Nef and Prickers

Posted: Sun Sep 02, 2018 7:08 pm
by Capt Bliant
Thank you, very informative. Thats just what I wanted to know.

Re: The Nef and Prickers

Posted: Sun Sep 02, 2018 9:34 pm
by Brother Ranulf
Incidentally, regarding you "have been told the Pricker, or as referred to above Spike, was only used for hunting purposes". The people telling you this are clearly confused, since they are referring to a completely different object. Known in Middle English as a tind(e), this was a forked wooden stick used for skewering choice morsels of the killed beast, referred to in texts from about 1300 onwards. It is very closely connected to the modern word tine, meaning the forked spikes of antlers.

Clearly a forked stick is not the same thing as a skewer used at the table, which had only one point - this was known as a sticca in Old English and stikke in Middle English, which can mean "an implement or a tool of metal or wood more or less resembling a stick". I firmly believe that it was commonly used before forks became fashionable.