My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Navaja: Knife Culture in 19th-Century Spain


For a change of pace, a few observations on the knife culture in 19th-century Spain, from Edmondo De Amicis' Spain and the Spaniards (1880):
In passing through a solitary little street, I saw in the show-window of a hardware establishment a collection of such immensely long, broad knives that I was instantly seized by the desire to purchase one. I entered; twenty or more were spread out for my inspection, and I had them opened one by one. Every time a blade was opened I gave a step backward. [Me: Wouldn't he soon have stepped out of the shop?
I do not believe one can imagine a more horrible or barbarous-looking weapon than this, which has a copper, brass, or horn handle, is slightly curved, and cut in open work which shows little streaks of various-colored isinglass, opens with a noise like that of a rattle, and out comes a blade as broad as your hand, and two palms in length, in the shape of a fish, as sharp as a dagger, and ornamented with chasings colored red (so that they look like stains of congealed blood), and menacing and ferocious inscriptions. On one is written in Spanish: "Do not open me without cause, or close me without honor"; on another: "Where I touch all is finished"; on a third: "When this snake bites no physician is of any avail; " and other pleasant mottoes of the same nature.

The proper name of these knives is navaja, which also means razor, and the navaja is the weapon with which the common people fight their duels. Now, it has rather fallen into disuse, but once it was in great demand. There were masters in this art, each one of whom had his secret thrust, and the people fought duels in accordance with all the rules of the cavaliers. I purchased the most enormous navaja in the shop, and we continued our route.
 Look at the size of this thing! It's so impractical--so why do I want one?
On reaching Castillejo I was obliged to wait until midnight for the train for Andalusia . . . when I got into a railway carriage filled with women, boys, civil guards, cushions, and wraps; and away we went at a speed unusual on Spanish railways. . . . I fell asleep after a few moments. I think I had already dreamed of the Mosque of Cordova and the Alcazar of Seville, when I was awakened by a hoarse cry: "Daggers!"

"Daggers? In heaven's name! For whom?"
Before I saw who had shouted, a long sharp blade gleamed before my eyes, and the unknown person asked: "Do you like it?"

One must really confess that there are more agreeable ways of being waked. I looked at my travelling companions with an expression of stupor which made them all burst out into a hearty laugh. Then I was told that at every railway station there were these venders of knives and daggers, who offered travellers their wares just as newspapers and refreshments are offered with us. Reassured as to my life, I bought (for five lire) my scarecrow, which was a beautiful dagger suitable for the tyrant of a tragedy, with its chased handle, an inscription on the blade, and an embroidered velvet sheath; and I put it in my pocket, thinking that it would be quite useful to me in Italy in settling any questions with my publishers.

The vender must have had fifty of them in a great red sash which was fastened around his waist. Other travellers bought them too; the civil guards complimented one of my neighbors on his capital selection; the boys cried: "Give me one too!" - and their mammas replied: "We will buy a longer one some other time."

"O blessed Spain!" I exclaimed, as I thought, with disgust, of our barbarous laws which prohibit the innocent amusement of a little sharp steel.

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