What the fork?
Before knives and forks we used to eat with our hands, but now with so much fast food, are we moving backwards? We explore the history of the knife and fork
Do we ever think that the knife and fork have a history when we pick them up to eat? Do we wonder how it came to be that we don't eat with our hands as our forefathers did? Not likely! We take it for granted that they have always been around. Well this is not so, the knife - and especially the fork - have a rather chequered history.
Pre-history, man ate with his hands, stones and wood. Sharp knives were made out of flint. Knives evolved with the onset of bronze, copper, iron, steel and much later titanium. Knives were used as a weapon and as a tool, and along the way, for food. Food would be cut up with the knife and then eaten by hand.
Forks on the other hand have a very interesting and long history to get to what we see and use today. They were in use in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, not for eating, but as cooking tools to lift meat out of cauldrons or the fire. Diners ate with their fingers and a knife, which they bought to the table themselves. We know that the Greeks used bread to clean their hands, which were then thrown in a container provided, and large serviettes were also available.
Forks for dining only started to appear in the noble court of the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common amongst the wealthy families of the region by 10th century. Elsewhere in Europe the knife was the only instrument at the dining table.
In 1004, Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II was sent to Venice to marry Giovanni, son of Pietro Orseolo II, Doge of Venice. She bought her own golden forks with her and proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. The local clergy condemned her for her decadence, with comments like; "god in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks, his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them to eat." When Argyropoulina died two years later from the plague, Saint Peter Damian, (with ill-concealed satisfaction) suggested that it was god's punishment for her lavish ways. Doomed by god for using a fork it took a long time for it to get to where it is today.
But Maria's Byzantine manners did make inroads over time. The Middle Ages experienced the spread of forks by their appearance as items of value bequeathed in wills. These early forks with two prongs were used primarily for eating sweets. According to some sources this was a common practice amongst courtesans, infuriating the church who banned them as immoral.
Another royal marriage would help the accelerate the use of the fork, taking it to France and making it popular in the French court when Catherine de Medici in 1533 at the age of fourteen arrived from Italy to marry the future King of France Henry II, bringing dozens of intricate silver forks with her. This caused uproar in Henry's court as the courtiers were ridiculed for the clumsy way they used the forks, losing more food on the plate then what went into their mouths. Despite such reservations, the fork spread fast amongst the wealthy French families eager to adopt this Italian fashion.
The knowledge of forks did not reach England till 1608 via the traveller Thomas Coryate who had travelled extensively through France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
As the fork grew in popularity it also changed form. The straight two pronged fork was fine for spearing food but not great for scooping and subsequently a third and later a fourth prong was added and adding a slight curve to the prongs, all these changes led to remarkable function and led to great design for the humble table fork.
There are accounts of a diner's habit of picking his teeth with the sharp end of the knife, which outraged Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to France's King Louis XIII (1601-1643) that the Cardinal had the tips of the sharp knives ground down to prevent this happening. In 1669 King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed knives on the street or on the dinner table illegal, hence the introduction of rounded tips on knives. This new style of knife spread rapidly even in England.
By the beginning of the 18th century imports to the American and other colonies all had blunt tips. Although in America, Australia and other outer colonies had very few forks and no sharp tipped knives the people were forced to use spoons instead to scoop up their food.
By the First World Fair that was held in London in 1851, the fork reigned supreme and books on eating manners were being written.
Today we are seeing the rise of casual food, fast food and for the first time since the 1500s we are eating completely with our hands again.
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