It’s the holidays and we are over saturated with information about common etiquette practices, how to set a table, and tips about how to be the perfect housewife. Google “place setting” and you will find hundreds of blogs about how to make your guests feel special, the festive way to set your table and what to do with each size fork. But did you ever stop to think about why we do things the way that we do? Emily Post has set a very clear set of guidelines, but where did they come from?
Dating back to the days of Chaucer and the Canterbury tales, no-one ate with forks. It was customary to carry a personal knife and when it came time to sit down for dinner, one stabbed a portion of meat and began to eat. Unfortunately, this practice was fairly dangerous for diners and mouth injuries were common place in the 14th century. Knives were not domesticated for table use, they were carried for protection and slaughtering animals, so just a small slip of the hand while dining led to serious puncture wounds. It was also the custom for women to be fed at each meal by the men at the table. Can you imagine courtship during this time? Sharing a nice meal together, and suddenly he coughs and splits your tongue? Talk about a way to ruin a first date.
The origins of the table fork date back to the Ancient Greek empire. Those trying to avoid lip lacerations made versions of utensils throughout history. Records indicate that by the 9th century the table fork was common in the etiquette circles of Persia and by the 12th century, the table fork had made its way to Italy.
But things really changed when Catherine de’Medici entered the scene in the late 16th century after Pope Clement IV arranged her marriage to Henry II. When she moved from Italy to France at the age of 15, she brought her forks with her along with her pastry and sauce chefs. Henry II did not allow Catherine to have much involvement in state affairs, as his attentions were focused on his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The women of the court in 1530s despised Henry’s canoodling and were impressed with Catherine’s intelligence, beauty, and manners. As a quiet protest of the King’s affair, the ladies of the court made it their mission to bring Catherine’s unique utensils into fashion. Each lady had a custom knife and fork set made for herself and her nobleman and began the custom of arriving to a dinner party with personalized utensils in hand. The fashion spread like wildfire throughout Europe and soon it became a sign of wealth to own a set of utensils large enough to entertain all the nobles of the court.
Now that we have the origin of the fork, the next question is why the placement? Most people are right handed, thus the fork would go on the left and the knife on the right so that if a gentleman needed to reach for knife quickly in order to defend himself, it was just inches away from his dominant hand. This is the same reason ladies are always escorted on the left arm of a gentleman, so that his sword hand is free to defend his lady in a flash.
So as you sit down to dinner with your family this holiday season, remember that etiquette is in place for your safety. And please, no stabbing at the dinner table.