As the new etiquette took hold, it also applied to the accoutrements of violence, particularly knives. In the Middle Ages, most people carried a knife and would use it at the dinner table to carve a chunk of meat off the roasted carcass, spear it, and bring it to their mouths. But the menace of a lethal weapon within reach at a communal gathering, and the horrific image of a knife pointed at a face, became increasingly repellent. Elias cites a number of points of etiquette that center on the use of knives: Don’t pick your teeth with your knife. • Don’t hold your knife the entire time you are eating, but only when you are using it. • Don’t use the tip of your knife to put food into your mouth. • Don’t cut bread; break it. • If you pass someone a knife, take the point in your hand and offer him the handle. • Don’t clutch your knife with your whole hand like a stick, but hold it in your fingers. • Don’t use your knife to point at someone.

It was during this transition that the fork came into common use as a table utensil, so that people no longer had to bring their knives to their mouths. Special knives were set at the table so people would not have to unsheathe their own, and they were designed with rounded rather than pointed ends. Certain foods were never to be cut with a knife, such as fish, round objects, and bread—hence the expression to break bread together.

Some of the medieval knife taboos remain with us today. Many people will not give a knife as a present unless it is accompanied by a coin, which the recipient gives back, to make the transaction a sale rather than a gift. The ostensible reason is to avoid the symbolism of “severing the friendship,” but a more likely reason is to avoid the symbolism of directing an unsolicited knife in the friend’s direction. A similar superstition makes it bad luck to hand someone a knife: one is supposed to lay it down on the table and allow the recipient to pick it up. Knives in table settings are rounded at the end and no sharper than needed: steak knives are brought out for tough meat, and blunter knives substituted for fish. And knives may be used only when they are absolutely necessary. It’s rude to use a knife to eat a piece of cake, to bring food to your mouth, to mix ingredients (“Stir with a knife, stir up strife”), or to push food onto your fork.