Knives and Spoons Are Ancient. Not Forks.

The way things look.
June 20 2012 6:00 AM

The Rise of the Fork

Knives and spoons are ancient. But we’ve only been eating with forks for a few centuries.

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This sardine fork hails from England,
Sardine fork

Courtesy of V&A Museum.

If you live in Europe or the Americas, you likely pick up a fork every day and give no thought to it, unless you’re selecting flatware for a wedding registry or you happen to have recently returned from Asia. Using it probably seems as natural as breathing. And yet it is a bizarre object, as Charles Simic suggests in his poem “The Fork”:

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.

The success of Simic’s poem—one of a series of “object-poems” he attempted in the ’60s when frustrated with his work—lies in its ability to evoke strangeness and horror in an everyday experience. But that kind of emotion is not latent in everything we touch (which may explain why Simic gave up on his object-poems pretty fast). Perhaps the fork is potent and intriguing because it is surprisingly modern. Humans got along just fine without forks for thousands of years. Which means we are, in a sense, still learning to use this small instrument. And our changing fork habits can reveal our attitudes about big subjects, including religion, masculinity, and foreignness.

Eighth- to ninth-century molded bronze forks from present-day Iran.
Eighth- to ninth-century molded bronze forks from present-day Iran.

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

The fork is a latecomer to the table. Knives are the descendants of sharpened hand axes—the oldest human tools. It is likely that the first spoons derived from whichever local objects were used to scoop up liquid: The word for spoon in both Latin and Greek derives from a snail shell while the Anglo-Saxon spon means chip. The shape of the fork has been around a lot longer than the eating utensil. In ancient Greece, Poseidon brandished a trident while mortals had large forked tools to pull food out of boiling pots. But the fork didn’t have a place at the Greek table, where people used spoons, knife points, and their hands.

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Sporadically, the fork made inroads. In the eighth or ninth century, some Persian nobility may have used a forklike tool. In the 11th century, forks were in use in the Byzantine Empire. An illustrated manuscript from that period shows two men using two-pronged forklike instruments at a table, and St. Peter Damian, a hermit and ascetic, criticized a Byzantine-born Venetian princess for her excessive delicacy: "[S]uch was the luxury of her habits … [that] she deigned not 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." Damian was sufficiently offended by the woman’s table manners that when she died of the plague, he regarded it as a just punishment from God for her vanity.

While Damian’s condemnation was unusually strict (this was also a man who described the first grammarian as the devil), the fork was commonly viewed with skepticism or even outright hostility. In a historical overview of cutlery in Feeding Desire, the catalog for a 2005 exhibition on the tools of the table, Sarah Coffin speculates that the fork's image problem could be connected to its resemblance to the devil's pitchfork (a word from which it derives its name).

In the Middle Ages, most people ate off rounds of stale bread called trenchers, which could hold cooked meat and vegetables and which could be brought directly to the mouth; knives and spoons could handle anything else that a hand couldn't. Forks, having journeyed to Italy from Byzantium, arrived in France along with Catherine de Medici, who traveled in 1533 from Italy to France to marry Henry II. The political culture of 16th-century France was riven by sectarian violence, and Catherine, in her role as mother to two child-kings, used massive public festivals to demonstrate the power of the monarchy. Food was part of this strategy of spectacle. Catherine's eating methods, as well as foods as diverse as the artichoke and ice cream, went on display as she toured the country for more than a year in the 1560s, drumming up support from the populace and devising etiquette that forced members of rival factions to eat together at her table.

Steel French forks dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s, with mother-of-pearl and beads.
Steel French forks dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s, with mother-of-pearl and beads.

V&A Museum.

At this time, most forks were two-pronged, and either hefty enough to hold down a cut of meat (similar to what we would think of today as a carving fork) or so dainty they were used primarily to eat sweets at the end of meals. Forks were used occasionally, but not every day. Montaigne, writing in the 1570s in a passage about the force of habit, mentions forks but says he rarely uses them. And they were still associated with sinister behavior. In an essay in Feeding Desire on the sexual politics of cutlery, Carolin Young notes that in 1605, an anonymous allegorical novel about the courtiers of Henry III portrayed a mysterious island peopled by hermaphrodites, whose behavior is characterized by theatricality, artifice, and falsehood. Sure enough, the hermaphrodites eat with forks, spilling more food than they manage to consume in their pursuit of the new and the unnecessary. Young traces the “unsettlingly effeminate aura” of the fork all the way through 1897, when British sailors are still eating without forks, considering them to be unmanly.

Steel and iron-gilt French forks from 1550-1600.
Steel and iron-gilt French forks from 1550-1600.

V&A Museum.

In the time of Henry III, fork-owners would have been well-off, and most of them would have had one set of cutlery that traveled with them; there are numerous examples of forks and knives housed in carrying cases that could be slung over a shoulder or around a waist. It wasn't until the late 1600s and early 1700s that people began to purchase multiple sets of silverware for their homes, which were just beginning to be equipped with rooms specifically set aside for dining. It was also around this time that forks with three and then four tines were made. Even as the fork gained ground, it was not universally accepted. As Ferdinand Braudel notes in The Structure of Everyday Life, around the beginning of the 18th century, Louis XIV forbade his children to eat with the forks that their tutor had encouraged them to use. But by the middle of the century, the use of the fork had become sufficiently normal that rebukes were reserved for those who used forks incorrectly. In 1760, François Baron de Tott, a French aristocrat and military officer, gave this account of an overly mannered dinner party in Turkey: "A circular table, with chairs all around it, spoons, forks—nothing was missing except the habit of using them. But they did not wish to omit any of our manners which were just becoming as fashionable among the Greeks as English manners are among ourselves, and I saw one woman throughout the dinner taking olives with her fingers and then impaling them on her fork in order to eat in them in the French manner."

18th-century wood-and-steel knife and fork left by the Hessian Army at the Battle of Germantown, PA.
18th-century wood-and-steel knife and fork.

Morristown National Historical Park, National Park Service Museum Collection.

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