We have seen that, as early as the XIVth Century, forks are used for a few special foods, but not as a general rule. We have looked at the most elegant court, the French court, and its satellites, the courts of the dukes of Anjou, of Burgundy, etc. The rich middle classes do not have any.
During the whole of the Middle Ages, fingers are the only forks used by table companions of whatever rank. Meats were usually served already in pieces. “Each person takes whatever is presented to him with three fingers, or holds out his plank to receive it.”
If the meat is greasy and full of juice, “it is bad manners to plunge your hands into it; but you take the morsel that you want with your knife”, to transfer it onto the plank. This is a plate of metal, of wood, or of very thick greyish-brown bread. It is round or square, and is a support on which to cut your meat.
In poor homes, a piece of bread, modelled into a little bowl with the finger, replaces the salt cellar. “Bread for a salt cellar” is indicated in the description of a meal in the XVIth Century. The planks, after having been simple slices of hardened bread, are made in pewter or in brass. They are the equivalent of our plates.
The salt cellar is placed in front of the master of the house, and indicates his place at the table. Some of them are mounted on wheels, so as to be more easily sent to his table companions.
If the food is liquid, a sauce for example – for sauces are served separately, in deep dishes or in bowls – “you can dip your flesh into it after the others; if the others dip their bread in it, you can also dip your own honestly, without turning it on the other side, after having dipped it on one, nor mop it around in the dish”. If there is a spoon in the bowl, “you can take it to taste it, but put it back, after having wiped it on the serviette”.
A young medical student from Bale, dining at his master’s home in Montpellier, reports that each guest eats his soup with his fingers, each in his own bowl. “As we were eating the soup in the local custom, that is to say by taking it with our fingers then drinking the broth afterwards, one of us became unnecessarily unpleasant with the hostess about having a spoon, for there weren’t any in the house and we had on the table only one big knife attached to an iron chain, which everyone used in turn. We do not yet have the very useful custom of spoons where I come from [Switzerland].”
So, in the Renaissance, all sorts of foods are still eaten with the fingers. The solids on the plank, the liquids in the bowl. Knives are used, but spoons are rare. As for the fork, there are none before the XIVth Century.
Neither forks nor spoons are mentioned in the Bible. The paintings of meals, like the Cana wedding, do not show any forks. On the served tables in the miniatures of the Middle Age manuscripts and the first known engravings, the fork is invariably absent.
In the middle of the table, there is the serving dish with the piece de resistance, a large knife with a rounded handle beside it, and sometimes, a spoon in the form of a spatula. If there is a big fork with sharp teeth, looking vaguely like a table fork, it is only an instrument to help the guests catch hold of the pieces of meat.
Kitchen forks are used to pull meat out of cooking pots, but the table fork remains unknown, at least in France, until the reign of Henri III.
Seventh part tomorrow.