Tools & Trades History Society

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What is a Twyvete?

This question by Richard Webb has provoked a lively debate on our facebook page,  so I thought it worth transferring to the website.  

Twyvete1 407x540

My initial response was that twyvete is a dialect word for a twybill, possibly from Somerset. That is, a mortising knife used to make hurdles. However, a comment by Salaman suggests that the word might also have been used more generally to refer to any two-bladed tool or axe.

 In Roy Underhill's wonderful book The Woodwright's Workbook, there is a 16th century poem, the "Debate of the Carpenter's Tools" which refers to a twyvette as a larger tywbill. I think the French term is "besaigue".


Kevin da Silva pointed out that the picture above is a besaigue which is different. A twyvete is the tool shown being used by the seocnd figure in the foreground in this illustration. 

Twyvete1 407x540

Paul Schaffner offered some very helpful references:

  • a1400 Westm-A 34/11 Vocab.(Westm-A 34/11) 14: Bisacuta..bisagu: a twibete.
  • (1420) *For.Acc.(PRO) [OD col.] : j magnus Remus vocatus Skulle, iiij berlyngtrees, viij tribulis, j tricepully, ij scoupes, j novum bonettum continentem iiijxx ulnas canabi, & j trebette ferri.
  • (1420) *For.Acc.(PRO) [OD col.] : j Tricepulley, ij Scoupes..j Trebete ferri.
  • (1439-40) *Court R.Long Bennington : [Nicholas Wryght de Newerk attached by 1] framyngax, [1] Twybyt, [1] Squyr.
  • ?a1500 *Lnsd.560 Gloss.[OD col.] (Lnsd 560) fol.45: Biþennis: twybyte.
  • c1500 The shype ax (Ashm 61) 145: 'Ȝe, ȝe,' seyd þe twyuete, 'Thryft, I trow, be fro ȝou fette To kepe my mayster in his pride.'
  • c1500 The shype ax (Ashm 61) 157: How, ser twyuet, me thinke ȝou greuyd.
  • 1510 J. Stanbridge Vocabula (W. de W.) B iv b Bipennis, a twybyt.
  • 1560 T. Becon Jewel of Joy in Wks. II. 26 b Is not my word lyke fire,..and lyke a twibytte cleauynge the rocke of stonne?
  • Wright's Dialect Dictionary found a 'twybittle' in Herefordshire ("a large mattock"), which Wright takes to be from twi- + beetle, as well as a twyvil in Northants. ('flail'), presumably just a form of 'twybill'.

As Paul says, words like "twyvete" are always the dread of lexicographers because they are protean (and local) in form and meaning, are seldom attested and even more seldom defined. Even so, the reference in the 1560 poem is interesting. Poets are rarely reliable on technical matters, but the reference to a twybill cleaving stone suggests that a similar tool may have been used for stonemasonry  - a bit like a modern pickaxe perhaps? Can anyone offer any enlightenment? 

We then stumbled upon a rich source of information in TATHS Newsletters, specifically an article by Roy Underhill on the 15th Century poem "Debate of the Carpenter's Tools in Newsletter 118 and a brilliant exposition of the tools in Newsletter 119 by John Clark.  Roy's article is here here and John's is here. Both are well worth a read! 

Philip Davies  added an enquiry about a twyvete which he made a couple of days previously on the Historical Timber Framing, Building and Architecture page. He had several helpful responses and thinks it is most likely to be a mortising axe. If you go to the Facebook page,  there is a picture in the foreground of it in use. 


Continuing the illusive trail of the Twyvete. Paul Cramer drew my attention to a carved spandrel in the porch of Old Impton, Norton, Powys dating from 1542, which depicts a set of carpenter's tools. Might the top two tools be a twyvete and a twybill? What else might they be?

 DI2005 0043


Paul Schaffner found a useful source which identified them as an 'adze or two-bladed axe for smoothing [timber]' and an 'auger' (left and right respectively), in _Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400-1800_, by Richard Suggett (Aberystwyth, 2005), p. 23


 Tools at Old Impton

  Jonathan Green Plumb  confirms that there are images on the internet of the original carving, which is very well preserved and it does appear that the hand tool is an auger. He recalls that Philip Walker wrote an article about the rare groping-iron which is of similar configuration to the twybill/twyvete. The article may be in one of the early TATHS newsletters.

Kevin da Silva, having seen it in the flesh, thinks that the "adze" definition is not correct and it is a twybill . The other is an auger in his view. 

Bob Burgess has offered some helpful comments on our Facebook page. Back in 2012 he published a very scholarly note on the subject of mortising axes and I am dleighted that he has agreed to allow us to reproduce it here. Well worth a read!