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‘A tool of the devil’: The dark history of the humble fork

It took eight centuries from its first recorded sighting for the fork to become universal at tables in the West. Here’s why.

‘A tool of the devil’: The dark history of the humble fork
[Source Image: Wig42/Blendswap]

It might surprise you to learn that the utensil you eat with every day was once considered immoral, unhygienic, and a tool of the devil. In fact, the word “fork” is derived from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.”

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[Image: courtesy Chronicle Books]

The first dining forks were used by the ruling class in the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire. The utensils moved west in 1004 c.e., when Maria Argyropoulina, niece of the Byzantine emperor, was married to the son of the Doge of Venice. Maria brought a little case of two-pronged golden forks to Italy, which she used at her wedding feast. The Venetians, used to eating with their hands, were shocked, and when Maria died two years later of the plague, Saint Peter Damian proclaimed it was God’s punishment:

Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge.

And with that, Saint Peter Damian closed the book on the fork in Europe for the next 400 years.
For the next few centuries, the only utensils most Europeans used were spoons to eat their soupy stews or knives for stabbing meat dishes. Many people, even aristocrats, preferred to eat with their hands. This was actually a rather civilized practice, and handwashing was a ritualized part of the meal. In medieval France, for example, the nobility were called to dinner by a trumpet blast called corner l’eau, which sounded the horn for water, and pages would pour scented water over the hands of each diner and provide napkins for drying before they dug into their meal.

It was the craze for candied fruits, beginning in the 15th century, that brought the fork to Italian tables. These sweets captured the appetites of diners in Renaissance Italy and changed dinner etiquette. Previously, refined sugar had been a limited resource reserved for medicinal uses, but expanded trade with Arabia and North Africa increased its availability. A favorite (and expensive) way to use all that sugar was to preserve whole fruit. The sticky, syrupy treat stained fingers, slipped off spoons, and was unwieldy and messy to eat with a knife. The solution? The fork. As it turned out, there were more people with a sweet tooth than there were forks to go around. Custom dictated that a guest wipe the utensil off before passing it to the next person. Gradually the implement gained acceptance throughout Italy, and by the 15th century, using a fork had become a mark of good manners in Italy, rather than an instrument of the devil.

It would take another 100 years and another royal marriage for the rest of Europe to catch on. When Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici arrived in France to marry Henry II, the future French king, the culture, food, and fashion of Italy were legions ahead of those in France. Catherine brought with her Florentine cooks (toting recipes for ice cream), fashionable attire, the Italian banking system, ballet, and the fork. Adoption of the latter novelty, however, wasn’t for everyone in Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England owned forks but preferred to eat with her fingers, as she considered “spearing an uncouth action.” Finally in 1633, 30 years after Queen Elizabeth’s death, Charles I proclaimed, “It is decent to use a fork,” and gave each of his children a utensil set containing a silver knife, spoon, and fork.

As forks began to be used more widely, their design evolved. The two-pronged fork was perfectly adequate for spearing food, but not well-suited to scooping bites from below. In the 17th century, the addition of a third and then fourth tine made food less likely to slip through, and curving the tines slightly made it a more efficient utensil. Finally, by the end of the 17th century, the fork was accepted in the last European holdout, Scandinavia.

[Image: courtesy Chronicle Books]

Americans didn’t embrace the fork’s use at mealtime until the Revolution. Prior to that, the taxation (Navigation Acts) imposed by the British made it impossible to produce goods like forks in the colonies. The law required that raw materials from the colonies had to be shipped to Great Britain to be transformed into usable goods. Buying British-made forks was an expense and indulgence that residents of the colonies considered superfluous. It took eight centuries from its first recorded sighting for the fork to become employed universally at tables in the West. And once it was accepted, no one embraced the utensil with quite as much exuberance as the Victorians. There was one designed for nearly every type of food: forks for eating lobster, forks for dipping strawberries in whipped cream, and forks for passing bread at the table. The range of varieties and rules were enough to make even a Victorian’s head spin.

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Thankfully, the pendulum has swung the other way in modern times. These days, even on the most formal occasions, it’s unlikely that you’ll be faced with more than three kinds of forks: salad, entrée, and dessert. If you find yourself confused by the array of silverware at a more formal meal, you can always take heart in etiquette expert Emily Post’s words: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others,” she wrote. “If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”

This essay was adapted with permission from The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories Behind Everyday Household Objects, From Pillows to Forks (Chronicle Books, 2020) by Amy Azzarito. Azzarito is a writer, a design historian, and an expert on decorative arts. 

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