Up until the 18th century, the fork was considered an elitist tool used by the (primarily Italian) upper class. Other Europeans considered it “unmanly,” “excessive,” and “an insult to God.”
As a piece of cutlery or kitchenware, a fork is a tool consisting of a handle with several narrow tines on one end. The fork as an eating utensil has been a feature primarily of the West, whereas in East Asia chopsticks have been more prevalent. Today, forks are increasingly available throughout East Asia. The utensil (usually metal) is used to lift food to the mouth or to hold ingredients in place while they are being cut. Food can be lifted either by spearing it on the tines, or by holding it on top of the tines, which are often curved slightly. A fork is also shaped in the form of a trident but curved at the joint of the handle to the points.
Though the fork’s early history is obscure, the fork as a kitchen and dining utensil is generally believed to have originated in the Roman Empire, or perhaps in Ancient Greece. The personal table fork most likely originated in the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Its use spread to what is now the Middle East during the first millennium CE and then spread into southern Europe during the second millennium. It did not become common in northern Europe until the 18th century and was not common in North America until the 19th century.
The word fork comes from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.” Some of the earliest known uses of forks with food occurred in Ancient Egypt, where large forks were used as cooking utensils. Bone forks had been found in the burial site of the Bronze Age Qijia culture (2400–1900 BC) as well as later Chinese dynasties’ tombs. The Ancient Greeks used the fork as a serving utensil, The Greek name for fork is still used in some European languages, for instance in the Venetian, Greek, and Albanian languages.
In the Roman Empire, bronze and silver forks were used, indeed many examples are displayed in museums around Europe. The use varied according to local customs, social class and the nature of food, but forks of the earlier periods were mostly used as cooking and serving utensils. The personal table fork was most likely invented in the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire where they were in common use by the 4th century (its origin may even go back to Ancient Greece, before the Roman period). Records show that by the 9th century a similar utensil known as a barjyn was in limited use in Persia within some elite circles. By the 10th century, the table fork was in common use throughout the Middle East.
The fork was introduced to Western Europe by Theophano Sklereina, the Byzantine wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who nonchalantly wielded one at an Imperial banquet in AD 972, astonishing her Western hosts. By the 11th century, the table fork had become increasingly prevalent in the Italian peninsula. It gained a following in Italy before any other Western European region because of historical ties with Byzantium, and it continued to gain popularity due to the increased presence of early pasta in the Italian diet. At first, pasta was consumed by using a long wooden spike, but this eventually evolved into three spikes because of how much easier it was to gather the noodles. In Italy, it became commonplace by the 14th century, almost universally used by merchant and upper classes by the year 1600. It was proper for a guest to arrive with his own fork and spoon enclosed in a box called a cadena; this usage was introduced to the French court with Catherine de’ Medici’s entourage. In Portugal, forks began being used with Infanta Beatrice, Duchess of Viseu, king Manuel I of Portugal’s mother. That happened around 1450. Still forks were not commonly used in Western Europe until the 16th century when they became part of the etiquette in Italy. It had also gained some currency in Spain by this time, and its use gradually spread to France. Even at that, though, most of Europe did not adopt use of the fork until the 18th century.
Long after the personal table fork had become commonplace in France, at the supper celebrating the marriage of the duc de Chartres to Louis XIV’s natural daughter in 1692, the seating was described in the court memoirs of Saint-Simon: “King James having his Queen on his right hand and the King on his left, and each with their cadenas.” In Perrault’s contemporaneous fairy tale of La Belle au bois dormant (1697), each of the fairies invited for the christening is presented with a splendid “Fork Holder.”
The fork’s adoption in northern Europe was slower. Its use was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation. Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use, St. Peter Damian seeing it as “excessive delicacy”: It was said that… “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.” It was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain, although some sources say forks were common in France, England and Sweden already by the early 17th century.
The fork did not become popular in North America until near the time of the American Revolution. The curved fork that is used in most parts of the world today was developed in Germany in the mid 18th century. The standard four-tine design became current in the early 19th century. The fork was very important in Germany because they believed eating with your fingers was very rude and disrespectful. The fork led to family dinners and sit-down meals which is very important in their culture.