Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Let us first refer to the relevant OED entry as it appears on the main project page:
It is also notable that this fork is the second entry in the OED. The primary entry under 'fork' refers to 'an implement, chiefly agricultural, consisting of a long straight handle, furnished at the end with two or more prongs or tines, and used for carrying, digging, lifting, or throwing', first attested in 430. At some point, then, between 430 and 1463, 'fork' acquired a new meaning; by today, the secondary definition has taken precedence in our minds if not in the dictionary. When and how did this happen? (The 'why?' will be discussed later.)
Simply put, the fork migrated westward through Europe, spreading from Byzantium to Italy to France and finally to Britain and Germany.1 Though the fork was not common in Western Europe until the 16th century, it was in use far earlier in the East.
The Greeks were the first to craft kitchen forks; their two-tined specimens help them secure meat while it was being cut. Centuries later, by the seventh century, Byzantine nobles began to use the fork for dining as well. An oft-mentioned tale in forklore2 is that of a Byzantine dogeressa of Venice, who brought forks with her to her new home. When she contracted a fatal illness, Peter Damien, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, was quick to write an account entitled, 'Of the Venetian Doge's wife, whose body, after her excessive delicacy, entirely rotted away'3. Evidently the adoption of the fork was not a seamless one, the logic being that, if we have fingers, why would we use forks? (This leads me to an etymological aside.)
But adopted they were: forks were widespread among the upper classes by the sixteenth century. Catherine de' Medici brought them to France in 1533 when she married the future King Henri II. Again, adoption was slow: eating with forks was 'affected'; besides, half of the food fell off of the fork on the way to the mouth, anyway.4 It was not until 1608 that we first learn of many forks in England: Thomas Cayote transported some back after his travels in Italy. Predictably, the English did not immediately latch onto this new utensil, their system having served them well for hundreds of years. The fork served some time as a means of transporting food from a common dish to one's own plate, and among the wealthy gained broader use. As late as the early seventeenth century, forks were still regarded as a luxury item, being frequently made of gold or silver.5
Note the differences in design between this 17th century English or German fork (L) and the 19th century German fork (R). Though they both seem to be luxury items (based on their handles), the older fork (L), with its long, straight tines, seems created for the purposes of anchoring food while its being cut and/or transporting large pieces to one's plate. The later fork (R) resembles our own and seems far more suited to transporting small pieces of food from plate to mouth, an action which would be quite clumsy if performed with the first fork. (I hesitate to say it would be 'dangerous' - perhaps those are my biases speaking?)
If the fork was not adopted into Europe until the late Middle Ages, what was its precursor? As alluded to above: fingers. Solids, especially meat, were taken by hand; liquids with ladels or spoons from a communal dish, or, oftentimes, being simply drunk. In seventh-century England, knives with pointed ends with being developed to serve both as a cutting implement and as a means of conveying food to mouth.6. Diners were in frequent physical contact not only with their food, but with other people. With the adoption of the table fork (as well as other utensils), Europeans' relationships to each other and their food changed drastically.7 By 1859, well after the fork had been widely adopted both in Europe and America, eating with fingers was described as 'cannibal'8. This shift in feeling will be discussed in the next section, Forkless.
Interestingly, the fork's implementation came much later in the American colonies. Apart from one fork owned by Governor Winthrop (of Massachusetts), forks do not appear in archaeological sites until the early eighteenth century.9 James Deetz, in Small Things Forgotten, notes that
The first mention of a fork in the Plymouth Colony area probate inventories is in 1721, in the estate of a wealthy gentleman in Marshfield, but significant numbers of forks do not show up in these records until the second half of the century. When forks appeared in quantities in England, knives changed in shape, and rounded blade ends replaced the pointed ones, since forks had assumed the function of the pointed blade. However, since most New England knives were made in England, and the fork appear do later in America, this relationship did not prevail in the New World.10Thus New Englanders, forkless and with a round-ended English knife, had to make due with their fingers and food. This dynamic is still visible today: whereas European etiquette dictates that the tines of a fork face downward, the American standard is to switch the fork with tines pointing up after the meat has been cut. Deetz points out that, 'if even one generation used knife and spoon in this manner [that is, the manner in which we currently use knife and fork] the fork, unpon its belated apperance, would be used in a manner similar to the spoon'11. Which is, of course, the case.
This leads us to the very interesting question of the fork's role in mealtime etiquette. Though not a main theme of my project, etiquette is a constant undercurrent, so, for those interested, I've created a page with a list of fork manners through the ages, sampled from Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process.