Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/The History of the Fork



THE Duchess of Beaufort, dining once at Madame de Guise's with King Henri IV of France, extended one hand to receive his Majesty's salutation while she dipped the fingers of the other hand into a dish to pick out what was to her taste. This incident happened in the year 1598. It demonstrates that less than three hundred years ago the fingers were still used to perform the office now assigned to forks, in the highest and most refined circles of society. At about this time, in fact, was the turning-point when forks began to be used at table as they are now. When we reflect how nice were the ideas of that refined age on all matters of outer decency and behavior, and how strict was the etiquette of the courts, we may well wonder that the fork was so late in coming into use as a table-furnishing. The ladies of the middle ages and the Renaissance were not less proud of a delicate, well-kept hand than those of our own days, and yet they picked the meat from the platter with their slender white fingers, and in them bore it to their mouths. The fact is all the more remarkable, because the form of the fork was familiar enough, and its application to other uses was not uncommon. It was even used in cooking in the epic period of the middle ages, as a spitting instrument, though rarely as an aid in cutting. It appears with some regularity in the inventories or treasure-lists of kings and noble houses after the fourteenth century, but only in isolated or very few specimens as compared with the large numbers of knives and spoons. In Clement of Hungary's list in the fourteenth century thirty spoons are mentioned, but only one fork, and that of gold. The proportion is nearly the same in the Duke of Anjou's inventory of 1360. King Charles V of France in 1380 listed along with many other objects two silver forks with crystal handles; and this monarch is said to have had in all twelve forks in a million francs' worth of silverware. The Duchess of Touraine in 1389 had only two forks to nine dozen spoons. The instrument was then called by the same name it bears to-day in French—fourchette—and this was the diminutive of fourche, pitchfork, with which all the farmers at least were acquainted. Forks are not oftener mentioned, nor for a different purpose, in the fifteenth century; but Duchess Charlotte of Savoy had, in 1483, two spoons and a fork, of silver, "to eat comfits with."

These examples show that forks were known as rare and costly articles, but were not used for the purposes they now are. Among the miniature pictures on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are representations of meals, but none in which a fork is shown lying on the table or held in the hands of any of the guests—except that, in a single picture in a manuscript of Herrad of Landsberg (since destroyed by fire), an instrument resembling a fork, but more like a double-edged knife split in the direction of its length, was lying on the table.

The fork is likewise not mentioned in any of the numerous descriptions of feasts by the chroniclers of the middle ages; not in Alienor de Poitiers's account of the ceremonies and table usages of the Burgundian court; nor in the account of the setting of the table given in the "Ménagier de Paris"; nor in that of the great feast given by the Duke of Burgundy to the English ambassadors in 1462. But it does appear from these stories that the guests took the meat and other viands which the carver prepared for them, and carried it to their mouths in their fingers. In some distinguished houses they took the pieces out of the common dish, or cut them themselves to eat them by the aid of their fingers. The guests did not even receive separate knives, and it was the custom in England in the sixteenth century for each to bring his own knife and sharpen it upon a common steel that hung upon the wall.

The absence of forks explains the careful attention that was paid to washing the hands before and after meals. Servants were all the time going around with basins and pitchers, and a towel slung over their shoulders, and pouring water on the hands of the guests, and the napkins were frequently changed. Sometimes the water was perfumed; and every pains was taken to remedy the soiling of the fingers that inevitably took place, and make it as little unpleasant as possible.

It seems clear enough, in the light of this negative evidence, that the few forks included in the silver-ware of the middle ages were not used as forks are used to-day. Since kitchen-forks served as spits and for holding roasts, it is probable that the high-born lords and ladies of those times, who only appear to have possessed these implements, used their silver forks for toasting their bread at the breakfast-room fire. There is some direct evidence that they were employed to hold substances particularly disagreeable or inconvenient to handle, as toasted cheese, which would leave an unpleasant smell; or sticky sugared dainties; or soft fruits, the juice of which would stain the fingers.

Only one incident is related of the use of the fork in the nineteenth-century fashion. This was by a noble lady of Byzantium who had married a Doge of Venice, and continued in that city to eat after her own custom, cutting her meat very finely up and conveying it to her mouth with a two-pronged fork. The act was regarded in Venice, according to Pietrus Damianus, as a sign of excessive luxury and extreme effeminacy. It suggests a probability that the fashion of eating with forks originated at the imperial court of Byzantium and thence extended to the West. Some hundreds of years had still to pass before it could be domiciliated in Europe, for this Byzantine doge's wife lived in the eleventh century, while the fashion of eating with forks did not become general till the seventeenth century.

It was the duty of the waiters to deposit the meats with large, broad carving-knives upon the plate, from which the guest took it and broke it up with his fingers, and with them conveyed it to his mouth. The nails were also sometimes called into requisition, if we may credit the verses which read—

"Ongle, riche et précieux;
Ongle qui tranche, quand tu veux;
Ongle qui en lieu de forcettes
À la belle sert de pincettes."

[Nail, rich and precious;
Nail, that cuts when you will;
Nail, which, in place of forks,
For the fair dame plays at tongs.]

Meat, when not cut with the carving-knife, was taken up in the fingers. It was the rule with respect to other viands for which the hand had to be put into the dish, to take them always from the same side, so that each guest might have his particular spot to pick from. A polite man should pick meat neatly with three fingers, and should take care in conveying it to his mouth not to touch his nose with it ("Ne touche pas ton nez ci main nue, dont la viande est tenue"). Erasmus, of Rotterdam, who was versed in good manners, said in 1539: "Take what is offered you in three fingers, or present your plate to receive it. There are people who can hardly wait till they have sat down before putting their hand into the dish; one must receive on his plate whatever he can not take out with his fingers." Monsignor della Casa, Bishop of Benevento, wrote in 1544 a kind of manual of etiquette entitled "Galatea," which was published in a French translation by Jean de Tournayin 1598. Among other things it directs: "One ought not to wash his hands before everybody, but in his room, not in society. Nevertheless, when one is sitting at table, he should wash his hands in the presence of the others, even if it is not necessary, so that those with whom he puts his hand into the dish may know that it is clean. A well-bred man," continues this author, "will avoid greasing his fingers, lest he soil the table-cloth, which would be disagreeable to those who witnessed it. It is also not proper to wipe the fingers with the bread which one is about to eat." The practice of some persons, of eating only with gloved hands, does not seem strange in the light of these facts.

As has already been remarked, the change from fingers to forks began to be made at about the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. An evidence of it may perhaps be found in the silver-list of Gabrielle d'Estrée in 1599, which included twenty forks. There was a society of fops connected with the court of King Henri III of France, who were distinguished for their ultra-refined notions concerning manners and dress, and were called Mignons. The king himself, who invented a new kind of starch for his collars, was in sympathy with them. The ways of this circle were ridiculed in a satirical pamphlet called the "Island of the Hermaphrodites," which was published in the earlier years of the seventeenth century. The custom of eating with forks was held up to scorn in this publication; stress was laid upon the accidents that it was presumed would happen to those who had not become adepts in the use of the instrument; and it was thought funny that, when it came to washing the hands after eating, they should be found not to have been soiled.

The custom seems to have extended by way of Italy to Germany, France, and England. Coryate, an English traveler, relates in his "Crudities," published in 1611, that he had thought it best to follow the Italian fashion of cutting meat with the aid of the fork, not only while he was in Italy, but also in Germany, and even after he had returned to England. "The Italians and also many foreigners residing in Italy," he says, "use a little fork when they cut meat at their meals. While they cut with the knife, which they hold in one hand, they hold the meat firm in the dish with the fork, which they hold in the other hand; and any one who should unthoughtedly touch the dish from which they were all eating, with his fingers, would give offense, and be accused of violating good manners."

The fork did not rapidly come into general use, even in the higher ranks. An English writer, Heylin, mentioned it in 1652 as something that had been taken up by the elegants. It is remarked in a "Nouveau traité de la civilité, qui se pratique en France parmi les honnestes gens" ("New Treatise on Civility as it is practiced in France among Well-bred People"): "When one takes from the dish, he should wait till his superiors have been served; he should also select once for all what he is to take, for it is impolite to put the hand into the dish twice, and still more so to move it around seeking for piece after piece." Louis XIII adopted the fork, but his queen, Anne of Austria, who had been brought up at the Spanish court, never could accustom herself to it, and always used her fingers, although she was very proud of her pretty hands. A verse is cited from the "Muse historique" in 1651, which indicates that departures from the old fashion of eating were still exceptional at the French court; and a pair of verses, of about the same period, contrast the old way with the new.

One of the most active agents in introducing the fork to polite society was the Duke of Montausier, who was a constant visitor at the Hôtel Rambouillet, the seat of the most refined manners of the day, and married the daughter of the marquise of that name, Julie d'Augennes. This house was of Italian origin, and probably received the fork along with its other Italian heritages. The duke, as the first chamberlain of King Louis XIV, had excellent opportunities, which he improved, to introduce the fork among the aristocracy and make its use common.

The history of the fork after the middle of the seventeenth century chiefly concerns the extension of its use and its spread from the aristocracy to humble circles of society. Its form has also been gradually improved, and changed from that of the straight, two-pronged instrument of the olden time, of little use except as a spit, to the gracefully and conveniently curved, broad, many-pronged English fork of the present day, spoon-like in shape, and precisely adapted to its purpose.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ueber Land und Meer.