Davis Reproductions Notation Knife
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow

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Imagine the scene: a sixteenth century feast, hosted by a noble family in their most impressive space. Everyone is seated at a lavishly-set table designed by the hosts to show their wealth and importance to the guests through a series of rich dishes in multiple courses. In the parts of Europe still dominated by Catholicism, the blessing of a meal in Latin before eating would be normal. The words Quae sumpturi sumus benedicat trinus et unus ("May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat") float through the candle-lit air as host and guests sing this blessing in full harmony, reading words and music not from hymnals but from the blades of the serving knives on the table. After the meal, the knives are turned over, revealing the words and music they sing in thanks for the meal: Pro tuis deus beneficiis gratias agimus tibi ("We give thanks to you God for your generosity").

As odd as this scene might sound to the modern mind, we have evidence this practice happened in at least some situations. We know because several serving knives have survived the centuries and are now housed in museums and private collections; they show musical notations of some of the pieces used for blessing the meal before consumption and for giving thanks afterward. Five such examples are known to this author: one in the The Victoria and Albert Museum (item 310-1903), three in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession numbers 1930-1-125, 1930-1-126, and 1930-1-127), and another in the J. Hollander Collection. There may be others as well.

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Antique notation knife from the V&A

Knives of this family feature music notation—pitches on a five-line staff with clef, key and time signatures—and words for a specific voice part: the Victoria and Albert piece is marked for the tenor voice part, two of the Philadelphia pieces are marked Contratenor and one Bassus. The Hollander knife is also marked "Tenor." Each side of the blade is helpfully labeled, with Benedictio mensae ("Blessing of the Table") and Gratiarum actio ("The saying of grace") letting the users know which song to sing. These knives share the same basic construction with etched musical notation, floral, trophy, and mask decorations, and integrated bolsters on steel blades that usually show the remains of gilding. They all have multi-part grips made of decorated ivory with metal and colored spacers. Researchers have even linked some of the knives together as showing parts of the same musical composition, allowing the original pieces to be reconstructed and recorded (see the Victoria and Albert Web site for examples). All these knives are dated to circa 1550 and are thought to be of Italian origin.

The subject of this review is a replica of the Victoria and Albert piece, purchased by the museum in 1903. It is among the best-preserved of these pieces and is a stunning example of this interesting family of knives.

Davis Reproductions is the custom shop run by Josh Davis in Minnesota. A collaborator with Arms & Armor, where he has worked on both their production pieces and custom work, Josh has set up his own shop to produce custom weapons (daggers and knives mostly) and armour. His armour has been used in jousting tournaments; contacts he made during his study abroad in the UK have connected Josh with both reenactors and professional jousters. He has served as a squire during tournaments in the United Kingdom and Europe, helping deepen his understand of how armour functions, fits, and moves.

In discussing potential projects, this piece kept coming up. While we both knew it would be a challenge, Josh was excited to try new techniques and infuse the piece with the detail it needed. The blade itself used many different techniques and Josh experimented a great deal in order to settle on a blade finish, acid strength, and duration of etching that allowed the design carved on the beeswax-covered blade to etch properly. Josh was communicative throughout the process. The knife took a little longer than initially discussed, due to its complexity, but this was expected and Josh kept me in the loop throughout with many in-progress pictures.
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Measurements and Specifications:
Weight:8.125 ounces
Overall length:11 3/4 inches
Blade length:7 1/2 inches
Blade width:1 7/16 inch at base, tapering to 1 1/2 inches
Grip and bolster length:4 inches
Bolster width:1/2 inch

Replica created by Davis Reproductions of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Ivory Grip

Handling Characteristics
Josh Davis was very exacting in his recreation, so size, weight, and handling characteristics found here would almost certainly have been present on the original, and indeed on the rest of the knives in this family. With such a wide and long blade, it's not surprising that this knife is blade heavy; serving knives don't require the swift handling of wartime pieces, of course.

The grip is not overly large, but fits the hand well if the etched and gilded bolster is used as part of the gripping surface. Though I have no plans to carve meat or cut bread with this knife, I have no doubt that its sharp edge would do the job nicely.

Fit and Finish
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Gold Leaf

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Storage Box

Those who have read my reviews before will note that I have often commented on what makes an authentic look; that combination of precision and handmade quirks that makes antiques so vibrant in appearance. Josh has captured that look here. It's a look not of perfection nor of sloppiness, but one that creates a piece that a 16th century noble would not find out of place.

The legally-sourced ivory buttcap and grip are well carved, with the front and back of the grip each containing a different incised and filled floral pattern as on the original. The ivory components are mated to spacers of brass (of differing thicknesses as the original has), kingswood, ivory that has been dyed green, and a steel pommel cap. Though a departure from the original, the kingswood used here is a closer match to the color of the original brown ebony spacers than modern black ebony would have been. Likewise, the pommel cap is made of steel instead of silver, a concession my wallet no doubt appreciates.

As detailed as the grip is, the blade is even more so. Hours of acid etching, done in stages to control the cleanliness and level of detail, have resulted in crisp renderings of all the features of the original. The musical notations on both sides match the original exactly. The etching acid did penetrate the wax resist coating in spots, but this adds a bit of age to the look of the piece.

The knife is completed with a storage and display box instead of a sheath or scabbard. Josh had free reign on its design and the result is both attractive and eminently practical. The inside of the box is lined with green felt and is carved so that the knife nestles into it. A compartment beneath the blade holds two wooden pegs that, when inserted into the supplied holes, serve as a means to display the knife at a pleasing angle for viewing.

This knife is a tour de force of techniques and execution. Its making required forging, grinding, filing, etching, engraving, dyeing, wood working, cloth cutting, and gilding. The grip is made of seventeen separate pieces while the blade contains a host of separate elements, all executed faithfully. It is by far the most complex piece I own and is visually stunning.

Davis Reproductions has made a piece that is an accurate and fitting homage to the original and a work of art in its own right. The number of different techniques used is impressive and those techniques are all well executed. A knife of this type would have been a prized possession of a 16th century noble and this recreation will remain a prized possession of this 21st century collector.

About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.

A Notation Knife at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Victoria & Albert Museum, Accession Number: 310-1903
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1930-1-125
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1930-1-126
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1930-1-127

Translations of Latin text from the Victoria and Albert Museum Web site
Photographer: Chad Arnow

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