Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Fork

17th century knife and fork
There is a point in the movie Becket (taken from the play of the same name by Jean Anouilh) that introduces the fork. King Henry II has never heard of it before, and doesn't see the point.* Forks did come to England rather late, but they were around much earlier elsewhere.

Ancient Greeks used two-tined forks as serving utensils, though not for transporting food directly to the mouth. Forks show up in the Middle East by the 7th century CE, used by aristocracy. In the 11th century, the Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvio, married a Byzantine princess, Theodora, who brought to Venice a case of forks, surprising the locals with her refusal to eat with her hands. Bishop Peter Damian of Ostia attributed her death to her "excessive delicacy."

"An Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought the first forks to England after seeing them in Italy during his travels in 1608." [link] This is not true of the "first forks," since documentary evidence of forks exists in England prior to that. This site shows examples of forks in wills and household accounts:

  • 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" [my translation: "Item: I give and bequeath to Davin John Kerteling my silver fork for green ginger."
  • The Jewelhouse inventory of Henry VIII: "Item one spone wt suckett fork at the end of silver and gilt" [Note: a "suckett" fork was used to get preserves like ginger out of jars; John Baret's was probably also a suckett fork.]
  • 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"
  • "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"

This is not to say that everyone in England had seen forks; only that forks were known at least to the upper classes. No doubt they were often made with expensive materials, and not accessible to everyone.

They started with two tines to prevent whatever was speared from twisting. The tines were straight, however, and some foods tended to slip off. More tines were eventually added for stability, and in the late 17th century in France we start to find curved tines meant for scooping and holding food more reliably.

Our word "fork" comes from Old English forca, meaning a pitchfork, from the Latin furca for pitchfork. The French called them forchette for "little pitchfork."

*You can see a clip here.

1 comment:


  1. 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.

    -- Charles Simic

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