Essential Information

National Maritime Museum

29 Oct 2007

Find out more about the history of the fork

by Leah, Customer Service Library Assistant

Recently I was contacted by a gentleman researching for a play, set at the end of the 15th Century on a boat and in a port. He was particularly interested in what would have been drunk on board a ship, what utensils and crockery they may have had and the difference between the eating habits and conditions of the crew and the officers. During our conversation he asked ‘had they even invented forks then?’

Having never really imagined life without forks I set about finding out! This is what I discovered… Apparently a lot of people assume the fork was introduced to the west during the middle ages (although personally I’ve never really thought about it), it was in fact invented a lot earlier than this, there is plenty of evidence of forks being used by the ancient Greeks and they are even mentioned in the Bible (Book of Samuel 2:13).

Early forks were only used for spearing or holding things in place whilst cutting and would have had two or three straight ‘tines’ and therefore have been of no use for scooping food. Before the fork became widely used across Europe diners were dependent on spoons and knives and therefore would largely eat with their hands and use a communal spoon when needed. This made dining not very hygienic as stews and soups were served in communal bowls which guests could just dip into, and these soon became filled with bits of whatever other foods the guests were eating. Gentlemen would wear their hats to dinner and stand and doth them in salute to each course as it was brought in and the table cloth would act as a giant napkin for all the guests to wipe their fingers and even their knives on.

The fork was introduced to Europe in the 10th century by Theophanu Byzantine wife of Emperor Otto the 2nd. It made its way to Italy by the 11th century and had become popular amongst merchants by the 14th. When the fork was first introduced as an eating implement it was normal for people to have their own knife and fork made which would be kept in a special box called a cadena, whenever someone threw a dinner party or a feast all the guests would bring their own cadenas to eat with. This custom was then introduced to France in the entourage of Catherine de’Medici.

Forks, however, never really caught on in Britain. Whilst our European cousins were tucking in with their new eating irons the British simply laughed at this ‘feminine affectation’ of the Italians, British men would eat with their fingers and were proud! What’s more, even the church was against the use of forks (despite them being in the Bible)! Some writers for the Roman Catholic Church declared it an excessive delicacy, God in his wisdom had provided us with natural forks, in our fingers, and it would be an insult to him to substitute them for these metallic devices. Eventually we caught on around about the 18th century about the same time that the curved, four tined variety became popular after its development in Germany.

The fork was further developed in the 19th century with the invention of the ‘spork’! A half fork half spoon super eating device! The back of the spork is shaped like a spoon and can scoop food while the front has a few tines like a fork to poke at the food substance, making it convenient and easy to use. It has found popularity in fast food and military settings. You can even get special varieties which have a serrated edge for cutting with!

The National Maritime Museum has some fantastic examples of forks through the ages! Including this toasting fork in the traditional three tined ‘poking and holding’ variety and a specially adapted knife/fork used by Admiral Nelson after the loss of his arm.

Admiral Nelson's specially adapted fork to enable him to eat with only one hand. 

The museum has yet to have an example of the spork in the collections, but you might find one in the café.