A History of the Fork
Robyyan Torr d'Elandris, OL
Home : A History of the Fork
Many people think of the table fork as either "out of period" or "very late period." Often people insist that the only period forks have two tines. Actually, table forks were known and used before the year 1000 in the middle east [Boger, Giblin]. Forks made before 1600 with as many as five tines still exist today. What is the real history of the table fork? Let us see.
The fork came to Europe through Italy's nobility in the eleventh century. Throughout the next five hundred years, the table fork spread throughout Europe, and into the lesser social classes. By 1600, the fork was known in England, although rare and viewed as an Italian affectation, while in Italy even the merchant classes were using forks regularly.
We can deduce that forks were not common by looking at various inventories and wills from the Middle Ages. The few forks listed were made of precious materials, and presumably kept primarily for dazzle and ostentation. They may also have been used as investment pieces for the value of the materials used [Bailey]. Some specific examples include:
- The Will of John Baret of Bury St. Edmunds, 1463: "Itm J. yeve and beqwethe to Davn John Kertelynge my silvir forke for grene gyngor"[Bailey]
- The Jewelhouse inventory of Henry VIII: "Item one spone wt suckett fork at the end of silver and gilt"[Bailey]
- Inventory of property left by Henry VII: "Item, one Case wherein are xxi knives and a fork, the hafts being crystal and chalcedony, the ends garnished with gold" [Hayward]
- "Item, one Case of knives furnished with divers knives and one fork, whereof two be great hafts of silver parcel-gilt, the case covered with crimson velvet" [Hayward].
A Byzantine princess introduced the table fork to Europe in the eleventh century. The story varies slightly depending on the source, but the essence is that a nobleman, probably Domenico Selvo (or Silvio), heir to the Doge of Venice, married a princess from Byzantium. This Byzantine princess brought a case of two- tined table forks to Venice as part of her luggage. Forks seem to have been novelties in Byzantium, but not unknown. Many examples can be found in Byzantine art, according to Boger and Henisch.
The princess outraged the populace and the clergy by refusing to eat with her hands:
"Instead of eating with her fingers like other people, the princess cuts up her food into small pieces and eats them by means of little golden forks with two prongs."[Giblin]The princess apparently died before very long, of some wasting disease, prompting Peter Damian, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia to write,
"God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks - his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating."[Giblin]
"Of the Venetian Doge's wife, whose body, after her excessive delicacy, entirely rotted away"[Henisch]Other evidence of the fork coming to Europe from the east is given in a letter by a Franciscan monk to Louis IX of France. He discusses the eating habits of the Tartars in the middle of the thirteenth century:
"With the point of a knife or a fork especially made for this purpose - like those with which we are accustomed to eat pears or apples cooked in wine - they offer to each of those standing around one or two mouthfuls."[Henisch]This fragment of a letter and listings in inventories and wills link the fork with fruits and sweetmeats. We also see the fork was used to eat dishes that included a sticky sauce or that might stain the fingers [Boger, Bailey]. At one time, this practice was primarily that of courtesans, prompting the Church to ban the fork as an immoral influence [Gruber].
The fork would be used to spear a piece of food, lift it from the plate or serving bowl, and shake any excess sauce from it. Then one would pluck the food from the fork using the tips of the fingers and place the morsel in the mouth. The early forks were small, with short straight tines, and therefore probably used only for spearing and holding food, rather than scooping. The curve with which we are familiar in the modern fork was introduced in France in the seventeenth century [Boger.]
Forks were known and used in Spain, at least by the upper classes, by the time of the Armada. A large assortment was recovered from the wreck of La Girona, which sank off the coast of Ireland in 1588. La Girona carried Don Alonso de Leiva and his retinue, who apparently traveled well equipped. Don Alonso is known to have entertained the Duke of Medina Sidonia before the Armada sailed, "in grand style, with musical accompaniment, at his table sumptuously set with silver plate and cutlery and gold-plated candelabra [Flanagan]." This cutlery included a large number of forks, with anywhere from two to five tines. These tines are all straight, as opposed to curved, although the five tined variety appears to be slightly splayed at the points. The many pieces recovered are fragmentary - either tines or handles, but few pieces still joined. The handles include a simple baluster stem with a terminal in the form of a hoof, to elegant handles with terminals in the form of serpents or of human torsos, among others. One wonders what was the purpose of so many different styles of fork.
Thomas Coryat of Odcombe, near Yeovil, in a book titled "Coryat's Curdities Hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Savoy, Italy, &c.," published in London, 1611, claims to be one of the first Englishmen to use a fork. We see from his writing that while forks were almost unknown in England, they were common in Italy and not unusual in other parts of Europe.
I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I thinke that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian, and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies, at their meales use a little forke when they cut the meate; for while with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hande, upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitteth in the company of any others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, from which all at the table doe cut he will give occasion of offence unto the company as having transgressed the lawes of good manners, insomuch for his error he shall be at least browbeaten, if not reprehended in words. This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forks being for the most part made of yron or steele, and some of silver, but those are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity, is because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myselfe thought good to imitate the Italian fashion by this forked cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and oftentimes in England, since I came home, being once quipped for that frequent using of my forke by a certain learned gentleman a familiar friend of mine, one Mr. Lawrence Whittaker, who in his merry humour, doubted not to call me at table Furcifer, only for using a forke at feeding but for no other cause.The humor is, according to Bailey, in the use of "Furcifer" as a pun, meaning fork-bearer, and also gallows-bird.
Ben Jonson also used forks as the basis of humor in two of his plays. In "Volpone" (1606), Sir Politick Would-be instructs Peregrine most humorously on correct behavior while in Italy, including "Then must you learn the use and handling of your silver fork at meals." [Act IV Scene I]. And in "The Devil is an Ass" (1616):
MEERCROFT, the projector. Upon my project of the forks . . .In a slightly more serious vein, Henisch quotes a letter by one Montaigne, of the late sixteenth century, as follows:
SLEDGE. Forks! What be they?
MEERCROFT. The laudable use of forks, brought into custom here as they are in Italy to the sparing of napkins . . .
I could dine without a tablecloth, but to dine in the German fashion, without a clean napkin, I should find very uncomfortable. I soil them more than the Germans or Italians, as I make very little use of either spoon or fork.The earliest fork known to have been made in England is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It bears the crests of John Manners, 8th Earl of Rutland and his wife Frances, daughter of Edward Lord Montagu of Boughton [Bailey]. It is two-tined and squarish, made of silver, and bears the London hallmark for 1632-3 [Hayward].
In other parts of Europe, it became customary to make knives and forks in sets. Better quality knives of the sixteenth century came in sets of a dozen or more contained in a leather case, and included a fork to be used for serving [Hayward]. This case or "stocke" is what the inventories of Henry VIII refer to. Only very wealthy households would provide knives for guests. It was much more common for people to carry their own cutlery with them [Hayward, Bailey]. Even the inns were not equipped with tableware, expecting the traveller to provide their own [Bailey]. As forks became more common, sets of knife and fork, often with a sheath or case for the pair, came into use. Some travelers had a collapsible or folding set of knife, fork, and spoon [Giblin], much like today's camping tableware.
So, there are a variety of table forks available for use in the period of the SCA. The persona most likely to use a fork would be a rich, late period Italian, while the least likely would be an early period Englishman (or Saxon, or Briton). A poor persona would be very unlikely to use a fork at any time in the SCA period. The richer, later period, and closer to Italy a western European is, the more likely they are to use a fork at table.
Copyright 1989, 2000 by Dennis R. Sherman. Permission granted for not-for-profit copying and distribution, provided this notice remains attached.
Boger, Ann. Consuming Passions: The Art of Food and Drink. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1983.
Flanagan, Laurence. Ireland's Armada Legacy. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988.
Giblin, James Cross. From Hand to Mouth. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1987.
Gruber, Alain. Silverware. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1982.
Harrison, Molly. The Kitchen in History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.
Hayward, J.F. English Cutlery, sixteenth to eighteenth century. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1956.
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast, Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
Millikin, William M. "Early Christian Fork and Spoon", The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 44(Oct. 1957), 185+.