Forking ‘ell, who would have known!

The fork is a latecomer to the table. Knives are the descendants of sharpened hand axes and weapons,the oldest human tools. It is likely that the first spoons derived from whichever local objects were used to scoop up liquid. The word for spoon in both Latin and Greek derives from a snail shell while the Anglo-Saxon sponmeans chip. The shape of the fork has been around a lot longer than the eating utensil. In ancient Greece, Poseidon brandished a trident while mortals had large forked tools to pull food out of boiling pots. But the fork didn’t have a place at the Greek table, where people used spoons, knife points, and their hands.

Sporadically, the fork made inroads. In the eighth or ninth century, some Persian nobility may have used a forklike tool. In the 11th century, forks were in use in the Byzantine Empire. An illustrated manuscript from that period shows two men using two-pronged forklike instruments at a table, and St. Peter Damian, a hermit and ascetic, criticized a Byzantine-born Venetian princess for her excessive delicacy. “such was the luxury of her habits … [that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain goldeninstrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth.” Damian was sufficiently offended by the woman’s table manners that when she died of the plague, he regarded it as a just punishment from God for her vanity.

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