History Bites: The Fork, a “Hateful Vanity!”

In the 1964 film, “BECKET”, royal courtier Thomas Becket (played by the late Richard Burton) introduces the fork for the first time; at a banquet for his friend and sovereign, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole):

Thomas a Becket: Tonight you can do me the honor of christening my forks.                   King Henry II: Forks?                                                                                                                 Thomas a Becket: Yes, from Florence. New little invention. It’s for pronging meat and carrying it to the mouth. It saves you dirtying your fingers.                                                    King Henry II: But then you dirty the fork.                                                                           Thomas a Becket: Yes, but it’s washable.                                                                                 King Henry II: So are your fingers. I don’t see the point.

King Henry presciently predicts that his roudy knights will, by the end of the evening, be drunk, brawling, and using these new-fangled skewers to skewer each other! Which is exactly what follows!

In truth, the fork was a late comer to Western European tableware. Though it arrived in time for the reign of King Henry II, if Becket did indeed attempt to introduce it, the experiment was a failure. Forks did not take on in England till the early 17th century.

The fork was first imported from civilized Byzantium to less-civilized-though-pretentious Venice at the beginning of the 11th century. In 1004, the Greek niece of the Byzantine emperor used a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice, where she married the doge’s son. At the time most Europeans still ate with their fingers and knives.

The local clergy lost no time in denouncing the new implement as sinfully decadence.

“God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers! Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

When the bride died of the plague a few years later, Saint Peter Damian opined that it was God’s punishment for her hateful vanity!

King Henry’s brawling barons would no doubt agree.

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