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Wee pen knife

03 Nov 04 - 10:24 AM (#1315214)
Subject: Wee pen knife
From: Davetnova

In one of the singing threads this morning Yorkshire Yankee made a reference to a wee pen kn*fe in a song only making sense when it was actually a weapon kn*fe.
The only song I can think of with a wee pen kn*fe is Dick Gaughan's the Cruel Brother where brother John cuts the saddle straps with "his wee pen kn*fe". Now this always made perfect sense to me. A noble could well be literate and carry a small sharp pen kn*fe for cutting/dressing quills and it would be the perfect instrument for surruptitious cutting. But now I'm wondering, WEE PEN KN*FE or WEAPON KN*FE?
Any body know? (the * replaces i as this school censoring software counts up the kn*fes and concludes I'm a terrorist)

03 Nov 04 - 10:30 AM (#1315219)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Rain Dog

Wee pen kn*fe

Any sort of kn*fe can be used as a weapon. Even one with an asterix

03 Nov 04 - 10:33 AM (#1315226)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Scabby Douglas

"wee pen knife" or "little pen knife"
occur in numerous songs - "The Cruel Mother".

I can't help feeling that it's unlikely to have been transformed in *all* variants of songs into "wee pen knife" from "weapon knife".

In any case, I rather suspect that the point of describing it as a "pen knife" is to emphasise that it is not an offensive weapon but a small and not-usually-dangerous utensil.

I think that "pocket knife" occurs in other songs.

Other opinions

Thankfully, I am unburdened by having to change knife to kn*fe.

03 Nov 04 - 10:33 AM (#1315227)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Uncle_DaveO

Or even one with an asterisk!

Dave Oesterreich

03 Nov 04 - 10:35 AM (#1315230)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Scabby Douglas

I meant to say for example, "The Cruel Mother"...

03 Nov 04 - 10:46 AM (#1315240)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Rain Dog


You have the Gaul to correct my spelling ?

03 Nov 04 - 10:48 AM (#1315244)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Roberto

Another couple of ballads complete with a little pen knife: Babylon, or The Bonnie Banks of Fordie (Child #14); Young Hunting (#68). R

03 Nov 04 - 11:18 AM (#1315292)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: masato sakurai

According to A Concordance to the Child Ballads, "penknife" is used in 52 times, "pen-knife" 47 (total 99) in the Child ballads. Many are preceded by "little" or "wee."

03 Nov 04 - 03:03 PM (#1315541)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Dave Sutherland

In Child Owlett;-
"Lady Eskine took her wee penknife,
Which lay doon by the bed,
And pricked herself below the breast,
Which made her body bleed"

03 Nov 04 - 03:04 PM (#1315542)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Lighter

A pen-knife in use wouldn't be restricted to trimming quills. Like a Swiss Army knife, a small knife (originally carried in a sheath rather than folded up like a SWK) would be handy for all sorts of things.

I'm guessing, but pen-knives may have been larger in the distant past than they are today. A modern-day butter knife, for example,is pretty "wee" compared to a hunting or butcher knife.

03 Nov 04 - 03:11 PM (#1315550)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: John MacKenzie

She took a pen-knife long and sharp
Oh the rose and the linsey oh
She pierced that bonny babe to the heart
Down by the greenwood sidey oh.


03 Nov 04 - 04:05 PM (#1315604)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Phil Cooper

I believe that at the time these ballads were written, that a pen knife was actually carried to cut food and had a longer blade than what we now call a pen knife. If someone was carrying a sword, along with a dagger down the sock, the shorter bladed knife on the belt would seem smaller than it might now. My singing partner Margaret points out that the blade of a "wee pen knife" was probably long enough to be considerd illegal in most cities these days.

03 Nov 04 - 04:51 PM (#1315649)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Joybell

It's often "ground long and sharp" as in "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"/"The Brown Girl" so that it becomes a modified weapon. Joy

03 Nov 04 - 05:08 PM (#1315664)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: John MacKenzie

A pen knife is exactly what it says, a knife for sharpening goose quills so that they could be used as a pen. It was not the folding pen knife we now know, which is a development of the original.

03 Nov 04 - 06:37 PM (#1315753)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Cluin @ girlfriend's

When I was a wee `un, listening to Ian & Sylvia singing Down by the Greenwood Sidey-O, and I heard the line "...she took out her wee pen knife...", I always thought they were singing about a "Weepin' Knife". I always wondered what a Weeping Knife was.

Of course, at the same time, when I heard I & S singing "Lonely girls linger by the door", I thought they were singing "No niggers linger by the door" too. And I hear I wasn't the only one.

03 Nov 04 - 07:00 PM (#1315773)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: YorkshireYankee

Hi Dave,

The song in question can be found here; (seems to be called "Babylon", although that's not the title I remember – but it's not a song I sing myself, so I can't speak with any authority on that).

The verse(s) in question:

He's ta'en the first sister by her hand,
And he's turned her round and made her stand.

It's whether will ye be a rank robber's wife,
Or will ye die by my wee pen knife?

I'll not be a rank robber's wife,
but I'll rather die by your wee pen knife.

He's killed this may and he's laid her by,
for to bear the red rose company.

In this particular case, it makes more sense to me that he had a knife a bit larger than a "wee pen knife", which – to me at least – doesn't sound all that threatening. Yes, you can argue that if he's big & strong and she's just a small, weak woman, he should be able to threaten & kill her with even a small knife, but if he's a "rank robber", surely he must be equipped with better weaponry than a "wee pen knife". It just sort of "clicks' in to place & seems more reasonable to me than it does if we're talking about a fairly smallish knife.

That said, I'm not maintaining that this Mondegreen-of-sorts applies to every trad song that mentions a "wee pen knife"; I was just sharing a bit of a discussion I considered absolutely fascinating – and which illustrated one of the points I was trying to make.

03 Nov 04 - 07:43 PM (#1315811)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Malcolm Douglas

An interesting idea, but we are certainly talking about "a wee pen knife"; nothing more, nothing less. It is a commonplace of ballad phraseology, and that's all there is to it. No mystery, nothing to explain or rationalise.

03 Nov 04 - 08:03 PM (#1315825)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Lighter

Simply for the "academic folklore" record, I'm very familiar with the "wee pen/weapon" "theory" and am pretty certain I read it or heard it as long ago as 1972.

03 Nov 04 - 11:56 PM (#1316014)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Rapparee

Just as a point of interest, the third picture down on this page shows a medieval scribe with both quill and knife in hand (the knife is in his left hand). With or without a point, it would still make a usable weapon, certainly capable of taking life.

04 Nov 04 - 12:07 AM (#1316025)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Songster Bob

My understanding is that the Scots had a "weapon knife," smaller than the cleighmore, or broadsword, but big enough to be called a short-sword by anyone else*. In Scots dialect, then, "weepon knife" and "wee pen-knife" could be homophones when two different blades are meant. So when a "wee penknife" is long and sharp, it's probably not a penknife. When it's an easily concealed blade, it's possibly a penknife that was meant.

Bob Clayton

* A Roman army sword might be a largish weapon knife. A Bowie knife would certainly be more like what the Scotsman would use. I don't know what they call those little knives that go in their socks, though. Perhaps THOSE are also 'weapon knives,' in which case the things come in many sizes.

04 Nov 04 - 03:35 AM (#1316113)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: YorkshireYankee

The little knife that goes in their socks is called a sgian dubh (pronounced skeen doo; spelling seems to vary).

04 Nov 04 - 04:17 AM (#1316146)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Malcolm Douglas

And, in English, dirk (or durk). They aren't very big (I think that the Bowie knife is considerably larger, though it's a while since I've seen one), and would also serve as pen-knives in the old sense; or as a general tool and handy means of cutting up food: probably their main use in the past, though also, sadly, a convenient weapon in drunken brawls. Boy Scouts used to carry very similar, but slightly larger, sheath knives; though I expect that's illegal now. The modern, miniature "penknife" is not what is meant here.

I don't believe for a moment in that "weapon knife" business. I gather that it was a pet theory of Tony Cuffe's, but there seems to be no linguistic or historical evidence at all to support it. See, for example, this old discussion on the Scots-l list:

Ballad question

04 Nov 04 - 04:19 AM (#1316149)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Davetnova

There was the dirk. That's a kind of dagger with a blade about 12" long, the scabbards of military ones often had eating knifes and forks attached.

04 Nov 04 - 06:17 AM (#1316197)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: YorkshireYankee

Interesting link, Malcolm – thanks.

04 Nov 04 - 08:34 AM (#1316293)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Scabby Douglas

And although the idea of "weapon" coming out as "wee pen" in a Scots accent may be attractive, the older Scots form of weapon would be "wappen" or something similar - as in "wappenschaw" . Admittedly, that's from memory - and I may have misplaced a letter or two.

I can't think of an instance where a sound like "wea" becomes "wee" in Scots. "Leather" is, well, "leather" "heather" is treated similary.

"Leapt" can become "lap", and often the vowel shift is more in that direction. Can anyone else think of an instance where "ehh" becomes "eee" (so to speak)?

04 Nov 04 - 02:22 PM (#1316728)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Russ

Great thread! Thanks for reminding me why I keep coming back to Mudcat.

04 Nov 04 - 02:24 PM (#1316731)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: chris nightbird childs

Yes, wee Scuts like r vuls shirt...

04 Nov 04 - 06:07 PM (#1316946)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Joybell

Yes it's an interesting idea (I heard it a while back too) but shouldn't we see some evidence of the term "weapon knife" written like that in an old ballad somewhere? Can't recall seeing it like that.
There doesn't seem to be any evidence of the word attached to other weapons either. "Weapon gun", "weapon sword" "weapon stick".
Fun thread though. I like it a lot. Joy

04 Nov 04 - 07:06 PM (#1317015)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Susanne (skw)

From 'Banks o' Red Roses':
"He's ta'en oot his wee penknife, an' it was lang an' shairp
An' he pierced it through and through the bonnie lassie's hairt"

Maybe the word 'wee' has changed its meaning somewhat between then and now?

04 Nov 04 - 07:27 PM (#1317032)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Malcolm Douglas

The meaning hasn't changed. What you have in that case is a combination of two ballad commonplaces; looked at objectively, they are contradictory, but penknives were almost always "wee", even if, coincidentally, also "lang and shairp". The singer won't have seen that as a problem, or -probably- thought twice about it.

04 Nov 04 - 09:40 PM (#1317130)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Cluin

In Teuchter: head - heid, bread - breid, dead - deid

But I think the wee pen knife was just what it says... a common tool used to sharpen quill pens. Sort of analogous to the common jack knife today.

05 Nov 04 - 02:57 AM (#1317336)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Liz the Squeak

Let's look at this logically.

To stab someone through the heart, you need a knife blade about 5 inches long.

'Long' is an objective measurement. My hair is 32 inches long. My friend Sweetiepie has hair that is 1/2 inch long.   I've been told (all too often) that 4 inches is long. My cat Shadow has hair that is an inch long, but she is described as a short-hair. The long-hair cat has hair that is 1 1/2 inches long. I think 4 inches is a bit short to be honest....

Therefore we can logically predict that the penknife would be referred to as long, even if the blade were the size of a Stanley (craft) knife.

'Wee' is a general term meaning small. Therefore we can determine that they were not talking about a broadsword. That would be taking the piss, or wee. 'Wee' can also be used ironically, as in 'Wee Jummy' who just happens to be 6'8" square. This would suggest that the penknife could be bigger than strictly necessary.

A penknife is a knife for making pens, so logically it should be of a convenient size to fit in the pencil case.

So.... it seems the lady/gentleman/baby/filthy swine was stabbed with a penknife that was between 4" and 6'8" that would have fitted in the husband/wife/mother/dashing hero's pencil case and smelled of something disgusting.


05 Nov 04 - 05:05 AM (#1317439)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Scabby Douglas

cluin:"In Teuchter: head - heid, bread - breid, dead - deid
Of course they are.

Ah can only plead illness, as ah wis sufferin fae elevatit temperature yestereday when ah postit. An mah heid wis burstin.

However, these shifts are commonplace, and very well-known. (Despite my brainspasm of yesterday). I can only suppose that I take heid, breid, and deid so much for granted that I completely overlooked them.

Or ah'm jist a big numpty.


05 Nov 04 - 05:39 AM (#1317477)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Metchosin

Susanne(skw), when I was very small, my grandmother used to sing that to me. However there was no problem with "wee" as it wasn't in her version.

He's ta'en oot a knife, i t'was lang an't was shairp
An' plunged it right in t'his bonnie lassie's hairt
He plunged it right in t'his bonnie lassie's hairt
And there laid her low among the roses.

She seemed to put great, Victorian, sorrowful, emphasis on the word "plunged" and as a small child, I was impressed. LOL

05 Nov 04 - 05:26 PM (#1318241)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Joybell

They had it all worked out, "....between the short ribs and the long, she pierced Fair Ellender's heart". It could be done. Precision surgery admittedly but possible, especially if the girl was a bit on the thin side. Joy

06 Nov 04 - 10:30 AM (#1318796)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

You're beginning with a false assumption, which is that the ballads must be describing a realistic interaction or situation. In fact, they describe recognizable, conventional, formulaic situations, not realistic ones. To try to impose "realistic" logic on them is silly. It would be like doing a statistical analysis of the milk-white steeds and dapple greys, and trying to determine what historical period in Britain would have matched the relative preponderance of these two types of horses. Or to examine fairy tales and try to decide if the magic comb that allows you to fly might be a reference to a folding hang-glider.

As Malcolm has already said, this is a ballad commonplace. That means it is a situation that proved useful to enough ballad composers and singers that it became a formula. A wee pen knife was a useful concept to the ballad because anyone might be carrying one, including children ("The Two Brothers,") women ("The Cruel Mother,") Lords ("The Cruel Brother,") etc. This made it possible for it to become a commonplace--a way of murdering someone that travels from ballad to ballad and can be "plugged in" to any narrative where someone needs to be stabbed. Thus, the fact that it also turns up in the hands of robbers ("Babylon") doesn't mean we have to search for an alternative explanation. It's just a formula.

07 Nov 04 - 06:15 AM (#1319422)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Russ


Excellent post.


If you are going to grant that formulae BECOME such (as opposed to being created from whole cloth) then it seems reasonable to posit a time BEFORE they became formulae when the creators of the ballads were in fact trying to describe a realistic interaction or situation.

Homer (or whoever) didn't simply pull "strong greaved Achaeans" out of the air one day while casting about to add needed syllables to a line.

07 Nov 04 - 12:10 PM (#1319601)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Davetnova

Well thanks all. Now I see that even when the answer is clear cut the explanation isn't. Wee pen knife it is for me forever more.( at least in "folk music"):-)

07 Nov 04 - 12:19 PM (#1319608)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

Actually, Russ, the Oral-Formulaic theory suggests that he might have done just that.

But to get back to your point, I don't think you need to look for a time when ballads were trying to describe realistic events. Ballads were a relatively late addition to the roster of medieval genres. In England, they began by adopting conventions of other metrical forms such as romance, which are far older. So the process of creating metrical formulae to describe conventional situations and inserting them into poems existed before the ballad did. When I said it "became" a formula, I did not necessarily mean that the first time it was used it was realistic; it is possible and even likely that it was created AS a formula.

A secondary point: even if it was created as a realistic phrase, its original use could have been in a ballad like "The Two Brothers," where a wee pen knife is more realistic than a weapon-knife. So even accepting that, there's no good reason to assume a weapon-knife is the original phrase.

07 Nov 04 - 02:11 PM (#1319716)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife


Whoa! Strong Claim.

I can't claim any knowledge of the Oral-formulaic theory and am way too lazy to do a google search....


your claim is certainly counter-intuitive to a layperson.

Are you suggesting that Homer might just as well have chosen "tall blonde Achaeans" or "goat-riding Achaeans"? If he was composing for an audience that had no knowledge of or experience with Achaeans I can see where he could get away with it, but was that really the case? (And I am aware that speaking of Homer as if he were a real individual might simply be a convenient fiction for the sake of this discussion).

I'd be interested in an example of a formula that is/was clearly arbitrary and unrelated to any reality.

07 Nov 04 - 02:12 PM (#1319718)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Russ

OOPS! The above is from me, Russ, lowly GUEST.

07 Nov 04 - 04:28 PM (#1319829)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

I have no idea what you're talking about now, Russ. I never said that there were formulae that had no relationship to reality.

You said

"Homer (or whoever) didn't simply pull "strong greaved Achaeans" out of the air one day while casting about to add needed syllables to a line."

I said he might have done just that.

Where does this imply "a formula that is/was clearly arbitrary and unrelated to any reality?"

All I am saying is that to assume the Achaeans' greaves were stronger than anyone else's based solely on the formula would be foolish. Also, it would be foolish if you discovered that the Achaeans' Greaves were NOT stronger than average, to claim that Homer really meant "average-greaved Achaeans," since this is more realistic. This is what the weapon-knife theory amounts to.

To return to the original topic, I was talking about wee pen knife, which is a plausible murder weapon and therefore bears enough relationship to reality to become a formulaic murder weapon, even if it is not the MOST LIKELY murder weapon in a given realistically-described situation. So the sea may be described by Homer as "wine-dark" even when the sea is rarely actually that dark.

In neither case does one need to resort to reductio ad absurdum as you are doing. If I were claiming that in ballads people were routinely stabbed with bananas because that's formulae for you, I might understand what you were talking about. As it is, I think you're just trying to pick a silly fight.

So to clarify, literature that is not "realistic" must still bear some relationship to reality. In ballads, people are not stabbed with bananas. But to try to claim that the ballad must be as close as the composer could get to reality, so that wee pen knives must really be weapon-knives when the murderer is more likely to have a weapon-knife than a wee pen knife, or that the proportion of milk-white steeds and dapple-greys must be accurate, or that every singe person must have gone to bed after mass, is foolish. "Mass was sung and bells were rung and all men bound to bed" is just a formula, and in fact is contradicted in most ballads when some men appear who were NOT bound to bed. Wee pen knife is just a formula, and while it bears SOME relationship to reality (it is possible to stab someone to death with one) it is not necessarily the most realistic option available. It IS the easiest thematic and metrical convention available.

That's all I was saying, Russ.

08 Nov 04 - 12:28 PM (#1320596)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Russ


Sorry. I thought your reference to Oral-Formulaic theory was about the greaves part, not the modifier.

08 Nov 04 - 04:09 PM (#1320666)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Mrrzy

There is also a wee pen knife in the version I have of Mattie Groves (for I know you've got 2 bitter swords and me not a wee pen knife)... which is the only mention of a wee pen knife that I know of, that isn't actually the murder weapon. Cool trivia question...

08 Nov 04 - 04:14 PM (#1320676)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

I think I see what you mean, Russ. It's funny how putting the emphasis on the wrong word can so easily cause a misunderstanding in cyber-space. Sorry if I sounded a little intense about it!

08 Nov 04 - 04:37 PM (#1320693)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Dave Sutherland

In one version of "Minnorrie"(Twa Sisters) one of the opening verses says
"He courted the eldest with his pen knife,
Minnorrie-o Minnorrie,
But he lo'ed the youngest aboon his life,
By the bonny dam sides of Minnorrie"

presumably it means he was prepared to defend her, but agin Mrrzy it is not the murder weapon.

08 Nov 04 - 04:56 PM (#1320718)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

No, DaveS, I just think it means he gave it to her as a gift. "He wooed the older one with gloves and rings, but he loved the younger one above all things" goes another version.

08 Nov 04 - 06:09 PM (#1320770)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Rapparee

If you leave out the adjective "wee", consider the verse from Wella Wella (found in the DT:

She had a pen-knife three foot long...

I don't think that many would consider any knife "three foot long" to be "wee" OR what we normally think of as a "pen-knife." I suspect that the author of song didn't either, but it's an exagerration -- you could kill not only a baby, but an adult if you stuck a much shorter blade into their head (as in the song).

Drawing upon my days of teaching hand-to-hand combat in the Army....

The heart lies (mostly) behind the sternum, or breastbone. A blade three inches long, thrust in from the right (your right, as you faced the person) could knick one or more of the left structures (the left of the person you're stabbing, that is). Such a blade would have to be thrust flat, or horizontally, between the ribs (getting the knife blade stuck in the ribs is not desirable). The thrust would also have to be quite forceful to penetrate the cartilage.

A four inch blade would be preferable, but in any case "a pen-knife three foot long" would be overkill.

Another problem would arise in stabbing a woman, and that is penetrating the fatty tissue of the breast far enough to hit the heart. In this case, a horizontal thrust up under the breast and to from right to left would be the most likely to succeed. I think that this could be done with a three or four inch blade.

Do it just right and you might not get much external bleeding, either.

08 Nov 04 - 07:31 PM (#1320869)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Snuffy

She had a pen-knife three foot long/She had a pen-knife long and sharp... How long is long?

And was it the baby's head or heart?

08 Nov 04 - 08:18 PM (#1320913)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,SLC George

The best example I know of a contradictory result from a formula is "my false true-lover" (usually WITHOUT the hyphen) in the American Tiny Sparrow ballad verses.

08 Nov 04 - 09:31 PM (#1320987)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Julia

It has not yet been pointed (no pun intended) out that a pen knife would only have been usecby people who were using pens i.e. those who could write, i.e. the aristocracy
These people generally would have more reasons for doing each other in For instance in the case of the Cruel Mother- sommon folk had children out of wedlock all the time and in fact extra babies were welcomed to add to the workforce on a farm and to replace those dying in infancy
Illegitimate children among the aristocracy however was a heinous, undesirable thing
My theory is that the "wee pen knife " signifies nobility

Just making a "point"


08 Nov 04 - 09:38 PM (#1320994)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

Actually, Julia, that wouldn't be entirely write---er, right. In the Middle Ages, writing was considered a form of skilled manual labor. Most lords did not do it, but hired others to do it for them. The exception would be any aristocrat who went into the clergy (most bishops, abbots, etc) and the third or fourth sons of nobles, destined to be managers for their wealthier siblings. Some noble women learned, just as they learned other skilled manual labor such as embroidery.

Otherwise, those who carried penknives would be students, clerks, scribes, and anyone who needed to keep accounts: in other words, the rising middle classes that Chaucer was part of and wrote about.

08 Nov 04 - 11:26 PM (#1321075)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Joybell

I've always really liked "False True-Lover" too. Better than a true false-lover I've always thought. Joy

10 Nov 04 - 08:51 PM (#1322947)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,julia

I guess it depends upon when the song was made, Perhaps this clue could help to determine that?.
Anyway it does seem odd that the guys wouldn't carry anything bigger. maybe it was a bunch of frustrated clerics or clerks- medieval postal workers?


11 Nov 04 - 01:39 AM (#1323163)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Nerd

Yes, Julia, the era is important, as many ballads would be post Middle Ages. I guess what I meant to say was that there was never a time when carrying the tools of a writer would mark you as specifically an aristocrat; writing was never a skill confined to the aristocracy or even to the rich. At first it was confined to the religious and to certain specialists, and from there it moved both up and down the social ladder.

11 Nov 04 - 09:54 AM (#1323271)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,julia

Thanks Nerd- that's good info.

My question is now "What kind of person would kill someone with a penknife."
If you were desperate and had nothing else at hand, that would be one reason. Several of these ballads, however, seem to be premeditated. The Cruel Mother, for instance, would have known she was going to give birth and one presumes would have made a plan long before the event. Then there are those songs where the killer lies in wait, usually men, whom one would suppose would at least have a small dagger (easily hidden) which would be much more effective. Maybe it's the blood thing as mentioned above- no muss, no fuss, no bother...One does have to get very close to the victim, however

Anyway, 't is a mystery


11 Nov 04 - 04:01 PM (#1323707)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Dave Sutherland

If,as it has often been suggested, that Bob Dylan has been heavilly influenced by the traditional ballad then he is smack on with his epic "Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" where:-
"The next day was hanging day, the sky was overcast and black,
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back". Earlier in the ballad we hear:-
"Rosemary started drinking hard and seeing her reflection in a knife"However in view of some of the earlier posts, would stabbed by a penknife in the back be effective??

13 Nov 04 - 12:51 AM (#1325348)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Rapparee

According to Captain W. E. Fairbairn, in Get tought! How to win in hand-to-hand fighting as taught to the British Commandos and the U. S. Armed Forces (Paladin Press reprint, 1979; "an exact reproduction of the original" [1942]), page 99, figure 112, the heart lies 3 1/2 inches below the surface and a knife attack to it would result in instantaneous lossof consciousness and death would occur in 3 seconds.

Thus a knife with a 4 inch blade would be sufficient and a shorter blade, thrust very hard, might also work.

30 Nov 10 - 06:48 PM (#3043904)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Mike

I have by coincidence just been restling with this issue (I am writing about Sheffield knives and looking at definitions)
I think, as at present many people tend to call all pocket knives "Penknives". There is no reason to not suppose that this generic description took place a long long time ago. My theory.

30 Nov 10 - 08:05 PM (#3043948)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: Jack Campin

I thought I'd try to find the story behind the Swedish polska "Pennknivsmordaren" ("The Penknife Killer") written by the fiddler H.L. Erlandsson while in jail for killing someone with a penknife. So I googled for it. Didn;t find that, but I found an astonishing number of news stories about penknife killings.

Benjamin Cooper, 35, killed mother-of-three Claire Marshall by hacking at her throat with a pen-knife before he grabbed a larger blade in a bid to cut her from ear to ear.

A MAN who admitted murdering a 93-year-old woman on Christmas Eve last year was yesterday sentenced to life and will spend a minimum of 16 years behind bars. Daniel Jebb, 22, had earlier admitted stabbing Peggy Weir with a tartan-handled penknife at her flat in Raglan Street, Maryhill.

A SCHOOLBOY who stabbed a young man to death during a brawl was ordered to be detained for five years yesterday. But a judge refused to lift reporting restrictions which prevent the 15-year-old from being identified even though he will be 16 tomorrow - the age when accused can be named. He scuffled with Gregor Gibb, 21, at Sheiling service station, in Gleniffer Road, Paisley, last August. Gregor, of Fauldswood Crescent, fell to the gound, the boy landed on top of him and his penknife pierced the victim's chest and heart.

Two weeks after sending [Roma Lonergan] 27 red roses to mark her 27th birthday, the chemicals factory process operator went to her house. After a struggle he ripped her mouth open with his pen knife before cutting her throat on the bathroom floor.

Trainee painter and decorator Thomas was walking to shops in Ferguslie Park Avenue, Paisley, when McCarthy stabbed him through the heart with a pen-knife.

Tracie Andrews is up for release next year after serving only 14 years of a life stint for slitting the throat of fiancé Lee Harvey and stabbing him nearly 40 times with a pen knife.

Looks like the ballad-mongers got it right.

30 Nov 10 - 09:09 PM (#3043968)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: YorkshireYankee

Guest, Mike -- I'm delighted you've revived this thread, because on re-reading it I have discovered a link which is relevant to a question I asked six years later (in this thread: Questions about Hughie Graham)! The question concerned a line which goes:
And ye may gie my brother James
My sword that's bent in the middle brown

I was wondering why anyone would want "a sword that's bent"...
The link that Malcolm Douglas provided in his post, above, after discussing weapon knife vs. wee pen knife, goes on to mention:
"...please note the Hugh the Graeme error in MacColl or the Corries songbook, or both - his sword was not of the 'the metal bent', or 'the metal burnt', but of 'the metal broon' in contrast to his other sword which is of the 'metal clear' "

Not having a phenomenal memory, I did not happen to remember the factoid contained in this link all these years later, and of course -- sadly -- Malcolm was no longer around to comment... but his vast knowledge is still here to provide enlightenment -- albeit sometimes in unexpected ways...

Although this does not clarify things completely (the words bent and brown are both used in the line in question -- think I'll go revive that thread), it was a buzz for me to re-read this thread (and that link) and make a new connection...

01 Dec 10 - 07:57 AM (#3044071)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,Mike

Thanks Yankee,
Another obvious fact that has been overlooked, I think, is that POCKETS are a modern invention (still trying to find out when they appeared) Point being that in the old ballads the option of saying POCKET knife had not yet arrived?
The Tracy Andrews case, proves my point, She used a POCKET knife I believe.
I wonder if the Royal Armouries could shed light on your "brown blade" puzzle. It reminds me a bit of reading something about the "Brown Bess" musket.
I will give it some thought

01 Dec 10 - 08:49 AM (#3044099)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: YorkshireYankee

Interesting thought about the Royal Armouries, Mike -- thanks for that. I look forward to "hearing" whatever comes back to you...

And Jack, great stuff, those headlines -- certainly does make the point that it is not that unusual for even a pen-knife to be a deadly weapon.

01 Dec 10 - 04:16 PM (#3044430)
Subject: RE: Wee pen knife
From: GUEST,mike

The point I tried to make re. Tracy Andrews was, we all know it was a POCKET knife but people still insist on calling it a PENknife. Why?

Not sure if this is explains the BROWN blade, or if its accurate but Googled this-

Browning of metal
The purpose is to provide a thin coating on the outside of the iron and steel parts, so that they are protected from rusting and corrosion. The idea is to intentionally rust the outside surface and then stop the rusting processes. The outside layer then protects the inside parts from further rusting and corrosion.
The process of browning is the older process and has been known for centuries, even before firearms were invented. In Europe, this process was originally called "russetting" and the term "browning" came to be used later. Later on, a modified browning solution and process resulted in a dark blue/black finish, which began to be known as "bluing". It has been theorized that the result of browning its barrel is what gave the Brown Bess musket its name.
One of the more common agents was salt-water, which has been known as a rusting agent since the Iron Age. Salt water was definitely used at least until the middle 1800s or so.