The, er, history of forks.

I Find Karma (
Thu, 28 Aug 1997 02:26:28 -0700 (PDT)

Blatantly stolen from...

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Mark S. Harris forks-art
forks-art - 3/27/95

From: Rosemary Goodheart (3/26/95)
To: Mark Harris

A History of the Table Fork

Dennis Sherman/Master Robyyan n'Tor d'Elandris

Many people in the SCA 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

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].

Forks also appear in an inventory of silverware in Florence, taken in
1361 [Giblin], in inventories of Charles V and Charles VI of France
[Bailey], and in Italian cookbooks of the late 1400's [Giblin]. All
these references do not mean that forks were common - the fork was known
only to the very uppermost classes, and seldom used even among them.

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]

"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]

The princess apparently died before very long, of some wasting disease,
prompting Peter Damian, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia to write,

"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

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

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 . . .

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 . . .

In a slightly more serious vein, Henisch quotes a letter by one
Montaigne, of the late sixteenth century, as follows:

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.


Bailey, C.T.P. Knives and Forks. London: The Medici Society, 1927.

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,

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,

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+.

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It's the end of the FoRK as we know it and I feel tines.
-- Wayne Baisley