Hungry History

Of Knives and Forks

By Stephanie Butler
Knife and Fork

sorendls/iStockphoto.com

Chances are you only really think about eating utensils when you forget to pack them in your picnic basket. How can you possibly dole out the potato salad or slice into that wedge of Brie without the proper accessories? Back in the day, this wasn’t a problem: for centuries, people only ate with their hands. Even in the early American colonies, forks were regarded with great suspicion, and knives were few and far between, shared at the dinner table and treasured as heirlooms. So how did these classic cutlery items make their way into your silverware drawer?

When humans first began cooking their food hundreds of thousands of years ago, sharpened stones and sticks helped them break down and consume their newly hot meals. Shells and hollowed animal horns were also commonly used, leading to the early development of the spoon. But spoon technology seems to have hit an impasse in prehistoric times, and the knife became the primary eating tool. In fact, it’s possible to trace human mechanical evolution through this humble instrument, made first with stone, later with bronze and finally with iron around 1000 B.C.

In medieval Europe, knives were often elaborately carved and decorated with bone or ivory handles. Hosts couldn’t be expected to furnish such a costly piece of equipment for large groups of people, so guests had to show up with their own knives in tow. (Given that large squares of stale bread known as trenchers served as plates until the 1600s, this “BYOK” policy probably didn’t seem so uncouth.) Early table knives had sharp, pointed ends that were used to spear food and bring it to the mouth. In an era when nobles and commoners alike guzzled copious amounts of fresh ale, this practice surely led to some punctured palates. Finally, in 1637, Cardinal Richelieu of France had his knife tips ground down to blunt circles, and our modern dinner knives were born.

Forks, meanwhile, had been around since ancient Greece, but they weren’t a regular feature at Western tables until the 1500s. The Byzantine princess Theodora Anna Doukaina, who married the Venetian doge in 1075, is credited with introducing the implement to Italy. Heartily disliked at court for her decadent, pampered lifestyle, she also brought the napkin and finger bowl to her adopted land. When she died in 1083, it was said that her entire body wasted away due to excessive delicacy.

When Catherine de’ Medici wed Henri II in 1533, she brought along a set of eating forks from her native Florence. Members of the French court scoffed at what they considered a typically Italian affectation and continued to plow through their meals with hands and knives. The tool finally gained respect in 1633 when Charles I of England magnanimously declared, “It is Decent to use a Fork,” thereby ensuring clean hands and unburnt fingers for generations of future eaters.

Categories: Cutlery, Middle Ages, Utensils