The fork is now in use in all levels of society.  There is no home so poor that it doesn’t have any, even if they are in pewter or in iron.  They usually have four prongs.  Two-pronged forks are only used for eating oysters or snails.

At the beginning of the XVIIIth Century, in England, a three-pronged fork is used, with a handle in the form of a nail claw.  The fourth prong appears under George II.

Later, fork handles are decorated with engravings, flowers, garlands, or even coats-of-arms and, more simply, the initials of the person who owns them.  The use of the fork to turn green salad dates from the beginning of the XVIIth Century.

Up until the eve of the French Revolution, when dining in town, a lackey is sent a few minutes ahead, to take your knife and fork to the place of the feast.  If you don’t have a lackey, you carry these indispensable instruments in the best pocket of your breeches.

This old custom lasts until the beginning of the XXth Century in certain outlying French provinces.  In a few rural parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Tyrol, it is the custom to go to dinner with a little pocket kit, containing spoon, knife and fork.

It seems that from the day that the use of the fork becomes generalised, the habit of cleanliness is lost.  Whereas, in the country, where forks are not yet used, “everyone goes to wash their hands at the well”, in town, even at court, they are satisfied with moistening them with a little alcohol or perfumed water.  “The greatest of kings”, Louis XIV, is presented with a wet towel, upon which he usually just lays his august hands.

There seems to be some sort of competition to see who can be the dirtiest.  Tallemant, praising people of the highest quality, finds nothing better to say than “they were very clean”.  He says:  “Mme de Sable is always on her bed done up like four eggs and the bed is clean like the lady”.

Mme de Motteville feels the need to let us know that Anne of Austria is “clean and very tidy”.  She also tells us that, upon the arrival of Queen Christina of Sweden in Compiegne, the hands of the august sovereign “were so filthy, that it was impossible to notice any beauty”.

An indiscrete Regency chronicler says of the Duke de Vendome, that he is so dirty that no-one sits near him at meals.  Another one says of the father of the great Conde, that “if he were clean, he would not be too bad”.

A third, speaking of the famous Duke d’Enghien, assures us that he is dirty and ugly.  Even Chancellor Seguier, himself, eats with the dirtiest hands that can be seen.

It is, however, inexact to claim that people stopped washing their hands completely at this time.  In 1667, the ceremony of hand-washing is still rigorously maintained.  “If it happens that a person of quality keeps you for a meal, it is impolite to wash with that person, without being expressly ordered to do it, being careful, if there is no officer to take away the towel on which you have wiped your hands, to keep it and not suffer it to remain in the hands of a person of higher quality.”

It seems like a lot of fuss over a simple act, which appears to be more show than substance.  However, what can we say after reading the following decisive passage:  “when you are about to sit down to a meal, you must wash your hands in the presence of the others, even if you do not need to do it, so that those with whom you put your hands in the serving dish have no doubt that they are clean”?

The message seems to be that even if you don’t care about being clean for yourself, do it for the sake of your table companions.  The washing of hands is thus a gesture of friendship and even of respect.

Ninth part tomorrow.