A few years ago I was invited to dinner by some Bengali friends and when we sat down what was my surprise to see that there was a knife but no fork, even though the menu was based on rice and chicken. They used their hands to eat it and, wherever you go, do what you see, I had to imitate them. In the West we are so used to using a fork that we assume it has always accompanied us throughout history. However, this is not the case; as we know it, it is a rather young, medieval cutlery, the beginnings of which were controversial as it was considered scandalous and unmanly.

Obviously, it is such a basic type of instrument that its roots go back very far, even to prehistoric times. In that sense, the oldest archaeological record is found in the Quija culture, which developed in the Chinese region of Gansu, around the Yellow River, during the Bronze Age (between 2400 and 1900 BC), where the pieces found were not made of metal but of bone. In other sites of later dynasties such as the Shang (about a millennium later) and others, metal forks do appear, as shown in sculptural funeral scenes from the Han era in Shaanxi.

If we approach the Mediterranean world, which is geographically and culturally closer, we see that they also used forks in Pharaonic Egypt, although not so much for eating as for cooking. However, we have a greater affinity with the Greek and Roman civilizations, in which this cutlery was commonly used; or instrument, to be exact, since as in the Egyptian case its main use was in the kitchen or when serving the dishes, mainly to carve the meat.

A third century AD Roman multi-purpose knife with spoon and fork / Image: The Fitzwilliam Museum

They made them in different metals, from bronze to silver, depending on the socioeconomic level of the user and the moment, and there were quite a few examples. It was from the 4th century onwards, in the Eastern Roman Empire, where they began to have a certain importance, firstly with the palatial etiquette that would be extended to the higher hierarchies and then spread to the lower classes. From Constantinople, the use of the fork radiated outwards in two directions: east and west.

The first one leads to Persia, where in the 9th century the use of a cutlery called barjyn is reported; although initially it was limited to the most exquisite tables, in less than a century it had already become widespread throughout the Middle East. The second was its introduction in Western Europe by Theophanu Skleraina, granddaughter of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II and wife of Otto II, holder of the Holy Roman Empire (whom she succeeded as regent when she became a widow).

Theophanu came to Rome to marry Otto wearing a colossal trousseau of hundreds of chariots in which she carried all kinds of sumptuary objects in noble materials (ivory, ebony) and precious metals. Among them was the fork, with which she stunned the court by using it at the banquet she gave in 972. However, the curious thing was that this story was repeated shortly afterwards with another character and this time the reaction was not limited to astonishment but also to voices against it from those who saw it as a stentorian eccentricity.

Ivory relief showing Otto and Theophanu crowned by Christ / Image: Clio20 on Wikimedia Commons

Let us now place ourselves in the second half of the 11th century, when a Byzantine princess arrives in Italy again; not in Rome but in Venice, although with the same nuptial purpose. This time she is Theodora Doukaina, daughter of Emperor Constantine X Doukas and Eudokia Makrembolitissa (the niece of Patriarch Michael I Cerularius) who is to marry Doge Domenico Selvo. The wedding was celebrated in 1075 with the pomp and circumstance of her rank, something so excessive that the bride, who also displayed superb behaviour, became unpopular from the very first moment.

The Byzantine stravaganza of Theodora was reflected not only in the colossal retinue she led or the impressive tiara she wore at the ceremony (the one worn by her brother Michael VII, who had just inherited the imperial throne) but also in her own daily behaviour, which included such whims as bathing in the dew that his servants collected or – and here is what interests us – the refusal to touch food with her hands, so that she made use of a golden fork to prick the bites that her eunuchs had previously cut off.

The ostentation of this fork was the drop that filled the glass and led Saint Peter Damien to pronounce forceful criticism against it in his sermons, qualifying it as an instrument of excessive delicacy and even an instrument of the devil. Or so says the legend, which is more than dubious because Peter Damien (or Pietro Damiani), a Benedictine priest who, after living as a hermit in an anchorite community, was called to Rome in 1045 to lead a reform of the Church, and was appointed – to his regret – cardinal, died three years before Theodora’s wedding. Thus, he could hardly make her the target of his diatribes, which have also been aimed at another princess, Maria Argyropoulina, for similar reasons, by marrying Giovanni Orseolo, son of doge Pietro II.

Saint Peter Damien (painting by Andrea Barbiani) / Image: public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

But let us leave the Byzantine trail and follow the trail of the fork, which, despite all the reproaches, had come to stay. In Italy it became fully established and replaced the wooden pitchfork that had been used until then, as the latter only had two teeth and the three teeth of the fork proved to be more practical, especially when eating noodles and spaghetti. However, it was a rather personal object, to the point that at banquets each guest was expected to bring his own. In fact, it became popular to carry it in a little box called chain along with the spoon, and that custom traveled to France, once again on the occasion of a wedding.

It was the one that united Catherine de Medici with Henry II, son and successor of Francis I, in 1533. Both were teenagers and when the Pope, the main sponsor of the marriage, died the following year, the next one refused to pay the dowry, which meant the postponement of Catherine in favour of a succession of lovers. She consoled herself by being a patron of artists and organizing country parties and picnics in which she imposed the use of the fork, which, by the way, she also used to scratch her back. Thus, the cutlery became common in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although it took time to replace the hand, coexisting both modalities, by a prejudice from a curious historical paradox.

In the second half of the 14th century, Charles V the Wise had seen people eating with forks in Venice, during his return from a trip to Poland, and decided to introduce their use in France. After all, he liked to collect precious objects and it was he who especially embellished the Louvre Palace. Unfortunately, the sexual preferences of the monarch, who had several favourites at his court, meant that his fondness for tableware was seen as a further manifestation of his sexual taste and was consequently abhorred.

Charles V of France, the Wise (François-Louis Dejuinne) / Image: public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

They say that the need to extend the arm to save the big ruffs, in vogue in the second half of the 16th century, was the decisive element for the change. In southern Europe it did not cost so much, perhaps because of contact with the classical tradition. The use of the two-pointed fork was common in Portugal, where it was introduced around the middle of the 15th century on the initiative of Princess Beatrice, the future mother of Manuel I. It probably had something to do with the diffusion of the Italian etiquette, since at that time both the Portuguese and the Spanish kingdoms had numerous Genoese and Venetian sailors and bankers, etc.

The Hispanic Hapsburgs, from Charles V to Philip IV, used forks sporadically and, in fact, before that there was the so-called “broca”, which was a carving tool and whose description appears in the work Arte cisoria, or Treatise on the Art of Cutting with a Knife, written by Enrique de Villena in 1423: “The second design is trident, because it has three points, where the first has two; this serves to hold the meat to be cut, or thing to be taken, firmer than with the first“. In the times of Philip III the forks had different names, according to the number of spikes: pitchfork, bident, trident and quadrigendum. However, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that forks were seen as something normal on tables and that they began to be manufactured industrially; in Barcelona for more details.

In contrast, elsewhere it was more difficult to establish, especially in northern Europe. Countries such as England and Sweden saw the fork as something effeminate and in Denmark before Christian IV (which also reigned over Norway), the Church showed itself to be narrowly averse to the idea on the grounds that Christ ate with his hands. Likewise, we do not find the first English documentary review until 1611, in a book entitled Coryat’s Crudities hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c’, in which its author, the traveller Thomas Coryat, describes his time in Italy:

The Italians always use a small instrument to eat and touch the meat. The person who in Italy touches the meat with his fingers offends the rules of good manners and is criticized and looked upon with suspicion. It is a strange thing that an Italian cannot be convinced to eat with his fingers, he will always reply that not everyone has clean hands. And I have adopted this custom and I keep it even in England, but my friends make fun of me and call me a furcifer.

Furcifer is an English pun that derives from the expression fork-bearer, that also means scoundrel. Novelties always raise suspicions.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 27, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo dos princesas bizantinas escandalizaron a Occidente usando un tenedor


Arte cisoria, ó Tratado del arte de cortar del cuchillo (Enrique de Villena) / Origins of the Common Fork (Chad Ward en Leite’s Culinaria) / El tenedor: un cortesano en la mesa (Juan Cruz Cruz en Regusto) / The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the turn of the first millennium (Adelbert Davids) / History of the fork (Suzanne Von Drachenfels en Food Reference) /Wikipedia

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