A silver fork with animal hoof finial, from Byzantium (possibly Syria), 4th century AD
The youngest member of the flatware family, the fork has only become an essential utensil in the last couple hundred years — after all, who needs a fork when you have fingers, aka the perfect tools for picking up morsels? Many historians see a parallel between the rise of the fork and the rise of civilization. You can also read it as an index of attitudes toward hygiene and luxury. So…what the fork?
A rare Roman spoon and fork combo in silver and gold, 3rd century AD
Forks have been around at least since ancient times, but these were usually two-tined (unlike the above example), and used mostly for cooking and serving food. For eating, Westerners were content with their fingers, spoons for soup, and knives, which were used to spear food on the plate and put it in the mouth. It seems that table forks were almost uniquely found in the Near East — Byzantium, or modern-day Syria and Iran.
Gerard David, The Marriage at Cana, c. 1500, with nary a fork in sight
So it's not surprising that the first appearance of forks in the West was in Venice, the European bridge to the East and terminus of the Silk Road. The "patient zero" of forks was apparently an 11th-century Byzantine princess who married a Venetian doge and brought golden forks as part of her dowry. The Venetians were appalled when they saw her using her fork, seeing it as spiting God: one clergyman said, "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." When the princess died two years later, the Venetian church saw it as God's punishment for the pride and vanity and "excessive delicacy" she displayed in her use of forks.
My guess is there was a little more to this than the simple equation of forks and vanity. A political marriage would have been fraught under any circumstances, with factions pro and against the choice of bride, and a marriage to Byzantium would certainly have had its opposition. Censuring the princess as being somehow 'against God' would have been good politics for all sorts of Venetians who had their own interests to advance.
But whatever the underlying motives, the harsh reaction to the fork persisted for centuries, and the utensil was apparently tainted by its association with Eastern decadence. In Europe, its use was limited to sticky or syrupy foods, like fruits cooked in wine.
A lavish rock crystal and silver fork from Germany, c. 1500, used for special fruits and other delicacies
By the 16th century, though, we know that forks were more commonly found on the dinner tables of wealthy Italians, because that is when the Florentine Catherine de' Medici brought forks to France when she moved there to marry King Henry II. It took Henry's courtiers a while to figure out how to use the things without spilling — food was always falling through the two wide tines — but since Italy was the style capital of the world at the time (the Renaissance), forks began to gain acceptance, though many saw their use as pretentious. We also know of at least one fork-using Spanish nobleman, Don Alonso de Leiva, whose ship sank during the Armada in 1588. Divers later recovered many forks among Alonso's sunken treasure, all straight-tined, but some with as many as five tines.
An Italian steel and ivory fork from the 17th century
In the early 17th century, an Englishman named Thomas Coryate published a travelogue of his tour through Europe, where he saw Italians using forks. Coryate admired the way forks kept one's dirty hands off the food — not as a way of keeping the food off one's hands:
The reason of this their curiosity is because the Italian cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing that all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myselfe thought to imitate the Italian fashion by this forked cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and often-times in England since I came home.
This point drives home the fact that people were pretty dirty back then. Medical 'wisdom' at the time dictated that one's pores should be clogged with dirt in order to prevent the Plague from seeping in. (Doctors actually believed that water could be deadly.) Etiquette books from the Renaissance reminded people not to blow one's nose on the tablecloth, but to use one's fingers instead — this during a time when people shared common fingerbowls for rinsing fingers between courses. So once ideas about hygiene started to change, the fork became a lot more attractive.
A French cutlery set, with its original carrying case, c. 1550-1600
Coryate's travelogue seems to mark a turning point in rates of fork acceptance in England, and the earliest known silver fork made in England was created in 1632. By the end of the 17th century, many people across Europe carried their own cutlery sets — including forks — around with them in a special case. Around the same time, hygiene was rehabilitated as an important aspect of healthiness. Now, forks could be seen as a way of keeping both hands and food clean. Some historians note that many men rejected forks as being too effeminate — until long lace ruffly cuffs became fashionable and made forks even more convenient; interesting to think about a time when lace ruffles were considered more obviously masculine than fork usage.
Coral and Gold fork, c. 1590-1610
Another important factor gets back to our Byzantine princess and her deadly sins: pride and vanity. As the wealthy began using forks, the started having them made out of precious metals and materials. Forks, like other objects, increasingly became vehicles for conspicuous consumption. And once that happens, everyone has to have them.
In the 18th century, people figured out that curving the fork and adding tines could make it easier to use on elusive foods like peas and beans. Meanwhile, the rise of forks meant the decline of knives. Louis XIV made sharply pointed knives illegal, presumably to curb violence (he might have been a little paranoid after the nobility revolted against him) and the new rounded table knives, fashionable everywhere as soon as they appeared at the French court, were totally useless when it came to spearing food.
By the 19th century, industrialization and the rise of the middle class meant that forks were no longer limited to an aristocratic elite. Now everyone could have their own flatware — and enough to offer their guests matching sets at dinner parties. Two-tined forks were no longer in vogue; now forks had anywhere from three to six tines — unless you were in America or a similar backwater. When Charles Dickens toured the U.S. in 1842, he noted that even the most polite Americans were still eating with knives and two-tined forks. But European civility was in vogue, and so the fork soon became standardized as the most important piece of flatware.
Victorian Toasting Forks
In fact, the Victorians found it so important that they invented scores of different kinds of forks — Victorian tables groaned under the abundance of unnecessary flatware, a different fork for nearly every kind of food! With our current cultural (and economic?) preference for casual dining, most of these have gone the way of the two-tined fork, but next time you pull meat out of a lobster claw with a tiny fork, you can thank the Victorians for their ingenuity!
So in tracing the history of the fork, we can trace the different Western attitudes toward cleanliness (Bad! No, good!), towards delicacy (Pretentious! No, civilized!), and towards conspicuous consumption (Ungodly! No, pretty great!). We can also see some general trends of material culture across the last millennium, especially the leap from virtuosic, expensive, one-of-a-kind pieces on royal tabletops in the Renaissance, to mass-produced quantity-over-quality pieces that emulate those European royals by the 19th century. Will you ever look at a fork the same way again?
Images: 14th century Byzantine silver fork at the Cleveland Museum of Art; 2 Roman fork/spoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 Gerard David, The Marriage at Cana, c. 1500, at the Louvre, via Web Gallery of Art; 4 German sweetmeat fork, c. 1500, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 5 Italian fork at the Met; 6 French cutlery set, c. 1550-1600, from the Victoria and Albert; 7 A coral and gold fork, c. 1590-1610, via larsdatter; 8 Victorian Toasting Forks via Redelf.
Sources: I love Suzanne von Drachenfels' book, The Art of the Table, and got a lot of good information from her. Online, Robyyan Tor d'Elandris has a lot of great primary sources, as does the Hospitality Guild.