An interesting gift of love is now on exhibit for the first time in the refreshed galleries at Jamestown Settlement. On display in the new section focusing on women and their recruitment to the Virginia colony, two copper-alloy lovers perch on the end of an iron knife blade as they have for at least 400 years. Arms wrapped around each other, the man rests his left hand tenderly upon his partner’s breast. The woman wears an ornate dress and headdress and carries a partially opened fan in her right hand. The man is wearing a hat, jacket and breeches. A sword hangs from his left hip.
The iconography of the handle and shape of the blade suggests that the knife was a betrothal gift in the mid- to late-16th or early 17th century. It was a common practice among both English and Dutch grooms at the time to bestow their brides with a pair of knives in a decorative sheath. The wife commonly wore the gift suspended from her waist as a symbol of her status as mistress of the household. Scholars believe this tradition developed in Europe in the mid-14th century with the “attestation of knife” to seal a deal, where a knife was presented with the conveyance of property. In the same way, the betrothal knife represents the man’s claim upon the woman who receives it.
The style of dress of the amorous pair appears to be Dutch, which may indicate the source of production for the knife. However, in 2011 an incomplete soapstone mold for a knife handle matching Jamestown Settlement’s pair of lovers was archaeologically discovered in London. In addition, the United Kingdom’s Portable Antiquities Scheme records at least four identical knife handles excavated in England. This suggests that the knives were products of artisans working in England who were inspired by knife handles from the Netherlands.
For modern sensibilities, gifts of chocolate or flowers seem more appropriate than a knife to show one’s affection. However, decorated knives were expensive in the 17th century and an indication of status. They were appreciated gifts as knives were necessary culinary tools, not only for cutting meat but also, like spoons, for conveying food to the mouth. Forks did not commonly serve this purpose in England until the next century when attitudes against using one’s fingers to eat became more pervasive, especially among the upper classes.
Bly Straube, PhD, FSA, Curator