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Cardinal_Richelieu

May 13, 1637:

Cardinal Richelieu of France Creates the Table Knife

Maybe he was weary of watching dinner guests picking their teeth with the points of their daggers, Cardinal Richelieu orders the blades of his dinnerware to be ground down and rounded off. Et voilà, the modern dinner knife is born.

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Prior to Richelieu’s flash of inspiration (or simple revulsion at bad manners), diners typically used hunting daggers to spear their morsels, which were then conveyed to the mouth by hand or with the help of a spoon.

Cutlery of the 1600's

Cutlery of the 1600’s

The fork, the implement that really revolutionized chowing down, had existed since biblical times. Despite its utility, however, the fork remained a relative rarity in the West until the 17th century, even among the French royals that Richelieu served with unswerving devotion.

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Richelieu’s knives became the rage among the court and soon everyone who was anyone in France had a set. The dinner knife became commonplace throughout France after Louis XIV — who, like most kings, had his own reasons for not wanting sharp blades and pointed tips around — decreed its universality.  Soon afterward, the dinner knife found its way throughout continental Europe to England and, eventually, the American colonies.

It’s fitting that the table knife helped refine table manners at the French court.  If the French didn’t invent good manners (and they didn’t: the ancient Egyptians instituted a code of behavior during the Fifth Dynasty), they at least gave the world étiquette, the five-franc word that’s synonymous with refined behavior.

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The Cardinal de Richelieu was often known by the title of the King’s “Chief Minister” or “First Minister”. As a result, he is considered to be the world’s first Prime Minister, in the modern sense of the term.  He sought to consolidate royal power and crush domestic factions. By restraining the power of the nobility, he transformed France into a strong, centralized state.

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He is also a leading character in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, père and its subsequent film adaptations, portrayed as a main antagonist, and a powerful ruler, even more powerful than the King himself.

Richelieu is also notable for the authoritarian measures he employed to maintain power. He censored the press, established a large network of internal spies, forbade the discussion of political matters in public assemblies such as the Parlement de Paris (a court of justice), and had those who dared to conspire against him prosecuted and executed. The Canadian historian and philosopher John Ralston Saul has referred to Richelieu as the “father of the modern nation-state, modern centralised power [and] the modern secret service.”

Notable Richelieu quotes:

Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state.
Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.

War is one of the scourges with which it has pleased God to afflict men.

Deception is the knowledge of kings.

We may employ artifice to deceive a rival, anything against our enemies.

From The Three Musketeers

Cardinal Richelieu: Milady De Winter. Your beauty would make even the most chaste of men think of… impurity.
Milady: I don’t believe you suffer the burden of chastity.
Cardinal Richelieu: Perhaps you’re right.
Milady: I was making an observation not an offer.

Cardinal Richelieu: A word of caution, milady. A snap of my fingers, and you could be back on the block where I found you.
Milady: And with a flick of my wrist, I could change your religion.
Cardinal Richelieu: You’re very persuasive.

Film Clip – Tim Curry as Richelieu:

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