The Fork…

Roman patricians and plebeians ate with their fingers, as did all European peoples until the dawning of a conscious fastidiousness at the beginning of the Renaissance. Still, there was a right and a wrong, a refined and an uncouth, way to go about it. From Roman times onward, a commoner grabbed at his food with his whole hand; a person of breeding politely lifted it with three fingers—never soiling the ring finger or the little finger. Evidence that forks were not in common use in Europe as late as the sixteenth century—and that the Roman “three-finger rule” still was—comes from an etiquette book of the 1530`s. It advises that when dining in “good society,” one should be mindful that “It is most refined to use only three fingers of the hand, not five.

This is one of the marks of distinction between the upper and lower classes.” Manners are of course relative and have differed from age to age. The evolution of the fork, and resistance against its adoption, provides a prime illustration. Our word “fork” comes from the Latin furca, a farmer’s pitchfork. Miniatures of these ancient tools, the oldest known examples, were unearthed at the archaeological site of Catal Hoyuk in Turkey; they date to about the fourth millennium B.C. However, no one knows precisely what function miniature primitive pitchforks served. Historians doubt they were tableware.

What is known with certainty is that small forks for eating first appeared in eleventh-century Tuscany, and that they were widely frowned upon. The clergy condemned their use outright, arguing that only human fingers, created by God, were worthy to touch God’s bounty. Nevertheless, forks in gold and silver continued to be custom made at the request of wealthy Tuscans; most of these forks had only two tines. For at least a hundred years, the fork remained a shocking novelty. An Italian historian recorded a dinner at which a Venetian noblewoman ate with a fork of her own design and incurred the rebuke of several clerics present for her “excessive sign of refinement.” The woman died days after the meal, supposedly from the plague, but clergymen preached that her death was divine punishment, a warning to others contemplating the affectation of a fork.

In the second century of its Tuscan incarnation, the two-prong fork was introduced to England by Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and British chancellor under Henry II. Renowned for his zeal in upholding ecclesiastical law, Becket escaped England in 1164 to avoid trial by the lay courts; when he returned six years later, after pardon by the king, the archbishop was familiar with the Italian two-tined dining fork. Legend has it that noblemen at court employed them preferentially for dueling. By the fourteenth century, the fork in England was still nothing more than a costly, decorative Italian curiosity. The 1307 inventory of King Edward I reveals that among thousands of royal knives and hundreds of spoons, he owned a mere seven forks: six silver, one gold. And later that century, King Charles V of France owned only twelve forks, most of them “decorated with precious stones,” none used for eating.

People were picking up their food in a variety of accepted ways. They speared it with one of a pair of eating knives, cupped it in a spoon, or pinched it with the correct three fingers. Even in Italy, country of the fork’s origin, the implement could still be a source of ridicule as late as the seventeenth century—especially for a man, who was labeled finicky and effeminate if he used a fork. Women fared only slightly better. A Venetian publication of 1626 recounts that the wife of the doge, instead of eating properly with knife and fingers, ordered a servant to “cut her food into little pieces, which she ate by means of a two-pronged fork.” An affectation, the author writes, “beyond belief!”

Forks remained a European rarity. A quarter century later, a popular etiquette book thought it necessary to give advice on something that was not yet axiomatic: “Do not try to eat soup with a fork.” When, then, did forks become the fashion? And why? Not really until the eighteenth century, and then, in part, to emphasize class distinction. With the French Revolution on the horizon, and with revolutionaries stressing the ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” the ruling French nobility increased their use of forks—specifically the four-tined variety. The fork became a symbol of luxury, refinement, and status. Suddenly, to touch food with even three bare fingers was gauche.

An additional mark distinguishing classes at the dining table was individual place settings— each aristocrat present at a meal received a full complement of cutlery, plates, and glasses. Today, in even the poorest families, separate dining utensils are commonplace. But in eighteenth-century Europe, most people, and certainly the poorer classes, still shared communal bowls, plates, and even drinking glasses. An etiquette book of that period advises: “When everyone is eating from the same dish, you should take care not to put your hand into it before those of higher rank have done so.”

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