The (phenomenal) invention of the fork came in a dark era: a brief history to reevaluate the Middle Ages

Jun 10 2024, 13:59
An article published in 'Il Foglio' by Roberto Volpi positions the advent of cutlery as a key element in revisiting an era often considered excessively dark and backward

"For there is no traveller today, writer or reader, scholar or disciple, who traverses the Middle Ages without finding what they hoped for," the article begins, tapping into the theme of rediscovering an era generally seen as dark and regressive. Yet, to feel the need to thank that seemingly distant era, one does not need to be a writer or scholar. One simply needs to sit at the table. For that is the era when an extraordinary invention was introduced: the fork.

Etiquette ante litteram

In his article, Volpi references the writings of the German sociologist Norbert Elias, who marked a milestone in the history of the Middle Ages in the year 1530, corresponding to the publication of Erasmus of Rotterdam's essay "De civilitate morum puerilium." This was a sort of etiquette guide that listed the most suitable behaviors for a young person on the path to education, including the, at the time, innovative use of the fork.

How the fork was used

The Middle Ages, described by Volpi as a period of transition and change, witnessed meals consumed communally where all foods, even meat, were brought to the mouth by hand, as well as the first uses of cutlery. It was not easy, Volpi recounts, to instill in young medieval people an attention to training in "externum corporis decorum," that is, physical external decorum. The use of the fork "provoked general disapproval, as it seemed extravagant and refined. It took centuries for its use to become widespread."

A matter of etiquette, but mostly of hygiene

However, as the article points out, the advent of cutlery at the table was not just a matter of etiquette but of hygiene. Travelers of the time already noted how inn and tavern patrons were "sweaty" and "overheated," and how they wiped "sweat with the same hands that then delve into common dishes in search of, probing in the grease, the best piece of meat." Thus, the fork had a dual significance, reflecting only in part, but perhaps the aspect closest to us all, that, to paraphrase the article's conclusion, "the Middle Ages knew a lot about all this. Too much. A too much that cannot be overlooked."

cross linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram