Even Richelieu did something useful

Cardinal Richelieu is remembered for making France into a centralized state by building up the power of the crown and weakening that of the nobles. He used brutal methods to do so, building up a network of spies and informers, having the rivals and opponents of his power executed, and banning political discussion in public bodies. His reputation was forever cast by Alexandre Dumas in “The Three Musketeers,” who portrayed him as a ruthless, power-hungry and cynical ruler. He will be remembered for his famous observation, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” And he did have quite a few people hanged.

He deserves to be remembered, however, as the inventor of the table knife on March 13th, 1637. He finally tired of the appalling table manners of his guests, who would stab at chunks of meat with daggers, and even worse, pick their teeth with the sharp points afterwards. He ordered his staff to grind down the points of his house knives, so they had rounded ends instead of points. Because he was famous as well as feared, the practice caught on, and French households copied the idea in order to be thought fashionable and well-mannered. The subsequent King, Louis XIV, banned pointed knives altogether, partly to prevent violence, particularly against himself, and partly to foster the idea of civilized and gracious manners. Thus began the modern table knife.

Richelieu is regarded with some respect in modern France. An elegant kind of lace bears his name, as does a Paris Metro station, and four warships have been named after him. It would have been five, but the aircraft carrier’s name was changed from the Cardinal Richelieu to the Charles de Gaulle. All of this honours his role in changing France into a modern centralized state, while his invention of the table knife is less well known.

It was, however, symbolic. As recent ASI lecturer, Steven Pinker, showed in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” violence has steadily declined over the centuries. The sharp daggers once used to wreak random and casual violence, have evolved into delicate instruments that enable us to display exquisite table manners. Swords have been turned, not into ploughshares, but into practical and useful items. Despite those who constantly moan that the world is heading for hell in a hand-basket, it is becoming better by almost every conceivable measure. Deaths in infancy, deaths in childbirth, deaths from disease and starvation, all are declining, as is the daily violence that people inflicted upon each other. Even Cardinal Richelieu contributed to that improvement and did at least one thing that was useful.