Sunday, April 4, 2010

That Foreign Curiosity the Fork

Sunday, April 4, 2010
Susan reports:

A Venetian nobleman sitting down to sup with King Henry VIII in 1530 would have at once noticed something missing from the English table. Each guest would have a silver spoon for pottage, sauces, and jellies and a knife for cutting meat, but no forks. Like most other Englishmen, His Majesty believed that fingers would suffice to carry food to the mouth, and anyone who thought differently was considered over-nice, or maybe just Italian.

While most of the courts on the Continent had been using forks for years, the English were very slow to pick up this particular dining refinement. Charles I's Queen Henrietta Marie brought them from her native France in the 1620s, and Charles II, too, favored them after his lengthy exile in Europe. By the end of the 1600s, diners of the better sort had begun accepting the two-tined fork (a smaller version of those used for carving meat) as a useful invention, and often carried their own with them. Not until the 18th c. did fashionable English forks acquire that extra tine or two, and receive the graceful bend to help carry food. Still, the two-tined variety remained in use into Victorian times in rural areas of England and among those who saw no use in tossing away perfectly good cutlery.

But it wasn't a refinement easily won. Like most Englishmen, traveller Thomas Coryat regarded forks with the greatest suspicion when he first encountered them in 1608 in Italy (perhaps at a grand banquet like the one above), and of course made fun of them – after, I suspect, he was "brow-beaten" himself for using his fingers.

"I observed a custom in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed...The Italian and also most other strangers that are commorant in Italy do alwaies at their meals use a little forke when they cut their meate. For while with their knife which they hold in one hande they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke, which they hold in their other hand upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the lawes of good manners in so much that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in wordes....The reason of this curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, feeling all mens' fingers are not alike cleane."

Above: Detail from The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563, The Louvre
Below: Silver filigree knife with steel blade and fork, late 17th c. French

13 comments:

Monica Burns said...

Is it possible that Henry used the fingers will suffice as an excuse to avoid saying he preferred not to give anyone the opportunity to use the fork as a weapon? LOL

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I like that theory, Monica. *g*

Henry wasn't the only one, however. I particularly liked the clerics who declared that since God had provided man with a fork in the form of his fingers, it therefore countered God's will to use an unnatural metal fork. Yow.

LaDonna said...

"feeling all mens' fingers are not alike cleane."

So does that mean that Coryat and other Englishmen believed the opposite?? That everybody's fingers are equally clean? Even considering how today everyone's addicted to hand-sanitizers, that's pretty disgusting. Guess I'll have to turn down that invite to the palace, haha.

nightsmusic said...

Alas, it is a sad, sad thing I must admit here, but my DD2 would fit in perfectly with Henry's court. The sad part is though, she's 21 and still can't abide using a fork.

We don't take her out in public much...

;o)

LizzyAnne said...

I'd no idea of any of this. In the middle of trying to convince a toddler that utensils are better than fingers, so I understand how training King Henry might be a challenge.

Glad you explained the knife-and-fork set in the picture. I thought it was a carving set!

Lady Burgley said...

Interesting post. I particularly enjoyed the Coryat quote.
But as tempting as it may be to consider sixteenth century diners as being "dirty" because they ate with their fingers, it's not entirely accurate. In the palace and in upper class homes the hands of guests were washed at the table before and after the meal with perfumed water, and some times between courses too. A host may not have offered forks, but he would have a fancy ewer and basin to bring to the table for washing.

LorettaChase said...

My guess is that the English weren't necessarily any cleaner or dirtier than the Italians--but certainly it was (and still is) common to consider foreigners and foreign ways dirtier--or stupider or in some way less good--than one's countrymen. This reminds me of the French and English women--each one asserting that her country's approach to marriage is superior.

Blackbird Crafts said...

"...considered over-nice, or maybe just Italian." ha, very interesting and funny post.
The best scene I can think of involving a two tine fork is probably the meal in the Cranford miniseries, where the ladies are trying to figure out how to eat peas.
I've been enjoying your site.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Whoops, I hope no one thinks I'm making fun of Italians here! Rather I intended to show by Croyat's comment how -- ahem -- narrow-minding people tend to be about one another's customs. The Englishman thinks the Italian manners are too refined, and his Italian dinner companions are in turn appalled by his fingers in their food. Four centuries later, and things haven't really changed...everyone's offended my SOMETHING!

Anyway. Lady Burgley, you are right about the washing before and after meals. I probably should have mentioned that, too, but Loretta and I tryyyyy to keep these posts reasonably short. Being history-nerds, we can go on, and on, and on....

LizzyAnne and Nightsmusic, some people (aka children of all ages) will insist on having their own way at the table, don't they?

Blackbird Crafts, you are perceptive! I believe it's the "pea dilemma" (and other tiny, slippery foods besides) that led to the improvements in the fork in the next century -- the extra, curved tines. Makes sense!

Michael Robinson said...

Might there be a correlation between the more general appearance of forks and the discouraging of finger bowls following the '15 rebellion when those of Jacobite sympathies were thought to pass the glass over or across their finger bowl during the 'loyal toast' to indicate the 'King Over The water'?

[At one very formal, but very old fashioned annual dinner, I attend in London the now decorative rosewater bowls still are ostentatiously removed from the table before the toast to prevent any possible suggestion of disloyalty.]

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Michael, I have to admit I knew nothing of this - but it makes for a most excellent theory. I also like the idea that there is still a Jacobite threat in modern London.

Anonymous said...

You may joke about this, but there is still a Pretender to the English throne, recognized by many as King Francis II, the rightful heir.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz,_Duke_of_Bavaria

Freda Lightfoot said...

Love the blog, and your books. Did you know that Catherine de Medici introduced the Italian fashion for forks to France when she married Henri II in 1533

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