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King Henry
and the Fork:

Lore of the
Early Modern English Dinner Table.

By Ronald Fritze
Posted on December 1, 2011, from Athens, Alabama

Have you ever seen a movie or television show where Henry VIII is shown using a fork? Actually, Henry VIII using a fork at the table is not an image of the king that generally comes to mind for us living in the present. Most of the time, we have images of a portly King Henry, gorging himself at the great table or brandishing a stout turkey leg of the type we see sold at the nearest Renaissance fair.

But what would it mean if you did see Henry VIII eating with a fork?

Anachronism in Action:  Spartacus in a Piper Cub

It would mean you were experiencing an anachronism in action, the out-of-kilter thing or notion placed in a historical context where it does not belong. The anachronism of King Henry eating with a fork would be a less obvious version of Saturday Night Live’s memorable skit with Kirk Douglas as Spartacus flying around in a Piper Cub airplane. It would be like Columbus shown gazing through a telescope. People know that the ancient Romans didn’t have airplanes. But they may not know that telescopes didn’t come into use in Europe until the early seventeenth century. It is even less likely that they would know that the English were not using the fork as an eating utensil as late at the early seventeenth century.

Most of us reading here today, and all you in our Tudor-Stuart class, have grown up in a cultural context we call “Western Civilization,” in which the standard utensils for eating a sit-down meal are a knife, fork, and spoon. The practice is so common and hallowed by long usage, most of assume that dining has always been conducted that way. This assumption guides our thoughts on dining, even though in the East they use chop sticks, which is another story. An elaborate etiquette has evolved around tableware with myriad versions of knives, forks, and spoons appearing in place settings. For most of human history, however, setting a table with eating utensils was unheard of.


Get out Your Knife and Dig In!

How did they eat, you might ask? An obvious answer would be: with their hands. People did use knives while eating their meals. But hosts did not supply the knives. They did not need to. Through much of human history, most people carried a knife on their persons. Knives were used for self-defense, but they could also be used to cut food, or spear it.

Spoons are a different story. Some foods require a spoon. You can’t eat soup with your hands. Of course, you could pick up a spoon soup bowl and drink from it. That, however, assumes people in the past ate out of individual bowls. A lot of eating was done from communal plates in which everyone reached in and grabbed morsels or speared them with their knives. Scary.

It gets worse. Spoons were provided but they were often shared with one’s neighbors. Nasty.

Is that a Spoon
In Your Pocket?

Not surprisingly, some people started to bring their own spoon to meals. Eventually, hosts began to supply their guests with their own spoon. So knives and spoons were commonly used table utensils far back into history.

Forks came into common use later — much later. The first mention of using a fork as an eating utensil appeared in a cookbook from the reign of Robert of Anjou, the king of Naples (reigned 1309-1343). A mention is made about eating lasagna with a single-pronged wooden utensil called a punteruolo. True forks quickly replaced the punteruolo.

The use of forks appears to have been connected to the spread of pasta as a food. Today we think of pasta as an inexpensive meal. But during the late medieval era, it was relatively expensive and hence a high-status food. It appears that a lot of early pasta was eaten hard and dry, sort of a grain-based version of the potato chip. Hence it was finger-food. But when people began to cook it and serve it wet, things changed.

another fork

Forks served other functions as well. Some dishes did not lend themselves to being eaten as finger-foods. A fork could be used instead of fingers to hold a piece of meat while cutting it with a knife. Some foods were too hot to pick up with fingers. Other foods were just very messy.

Wipe off that Sauce with the Table Cloth.

Initially, the table clothe doubled as a napkin. True napkins came later. A table cloth was basically a big communal napkin. If a food was too messy, a table cloth could become fouled rather quickly. Forks and individual napkins were intended to make eating more salubrious. Over time people began to appreciate having clean forks to delve into the serving bowls and plates of their dinner tables rather than hands and fingers of dubious cleanliness.

But in the England of the Tudors there was no pasta — and no pasta meant no forks. So, we return to our initial premise: Henry VIII eating with a fork is truly an anachronism.

a pretty fork

Trangress the Laws of Good Manners
And You're Likely to Be Brow-Beaten.

The first Englishman to talk about forks was Thomas Coryate (?1577-1617), a famous traveler and travel-writer. In 1608 he journeyed to France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, traveling mostly on foot. He wrote a book about his travels that was published in 1611 as Coryats Crudities. In his book he told:

I observed a custom in all those Italian cities and towns through which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I think that any other nation of Christendom doth use it, but only Italy. The Italians, and also most strangers that are cormorant in Italy, do always at their meals use a little fork when they cut their meat. For a while with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meat out of the dish, they fasten their fork which they hold in their other hand upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that, sitting in the company of others at meal, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meat with his fingers from which all at the table do cut, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the laws of good manners, in so much that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten if not reprehended in words. This form of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forks being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but those are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing that all men’s fingers are not alike clean. Hereupon I myself thought good to imitate the Italian fashion by this forked cutting of meat, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and oftentimes in England since I came home.

Coryate knew a good thing when he saw it. coryate We do not know enough about the diffusion of the culture of the fork into England to know if Coryate can be credited with being the first person who brought the fork to England. But he did follow the dictum of a latter English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who wrote, “All travel has its advantages. If a passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”

Despite Coryate’s enthusiasm for the fork, its use spread slowly, starting with the elite and slowly filtering down to the poorest in the land during the course of the nineteenth-century. Today’s message: Watch out for forks that don’t belong when you are watching a historical film.

a golden fork
read it

To read Dr. Fritze's previous Tudor and Stuart Britain essay, The Pleasures and the Perils of 'Forreine Travell', click the reading glasses above.

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