This post contains affiliate links. If you like our show, please take a moment to support us on Patreon. Welcome to Episode #112 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare. We sit down to a properly set table and expect to see at minimum a fork, knife, and a spoon. More elaborate settings may have more utensils, but for William Shakespeare, his lifetime was the first moment in England’s history when dining habits were caught somewhere between the age of eating with one’s hands, and the advent of proper utensils at the dining table. While the invention of the fork happened centuries prior to Shakespeare, the fashion of using them to eat with at a table for meals did not arrive in Europe until the youth of Shakespeare’s parents, when in 1533 Catherine de Medici of France travelled from Italy to France to marry Henry II. Across Europe the couple held festivals to demonstrate their power, including the showcase of Catherine’s unique eating methods, namely–the use of a fork. As the custom of eating with a fork made its’ way across Europe, the fork was met with a mixed reception, and even morphed into a political symbol. By the time William Shakespeare was taking the world by storm, the fork was a novel eating instrument in England, fascinating some, and infuriating others. Here to help us explore what the experience of eating at a table, and using a fork, would have been like for William Shakespeare is our guest, now three time a visitor here at That ShakespeareLIfe, Tudor enthusiasts, expert culinary historian, and my friend, Brigitte Webster.
Join the conversation below.
Brigette Webster is the owner and founder at Tudor and 17th Century Experience, a unique living history centre with authentic accommodations that let visitors step back in history to experience life in England’s 17th century. In this photograph, Brigitte is standing in front of their authentic Tudor manor home. Offering designated open days, “taster days “, weekends and custom-made holidays, Brigette’s unique home lets guests travel back in time to fall in love with 17th century English history, featuring a real Tudor Knot Garden which she meticulously designed herself and that you can, by appointment, visit to walk through and experience this slice of history for yourself.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Brigitte Webster about :
- Catherine de Medici used the fork as a political weapon as she crossed Europe in the mid-16th century. Do we have any evidence that Queen Elizabeth I may have also used a fork similarly?
- When someone went to eat at Clement’s Inn, for example, as Shakespeare mentions in Henry IV Part 2, would a patron have been given a set of utensils to eat with?
- What did forks look like physically? How many tongs did they have?
- … and more!
Description from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: This French travelling set of cutlery, dating from the second half of the 16th century contains a knife with pointed blade for skewering meat, an early fork and a skewer. Owning fine cutlery in the 16th century was an outward sign of wealth, elegance and refinement. It was normal practice for everyone to carry their own cutlery, especially a knife, in a leather case. Cutlery remained individual and personalised. The knife was the main eating implement in Europe until the middle of the 17th century. The basic form of the table knife, a single-edged blade more or less pointed, with a handle, has remained virtually the same since Antiquity, although the details of construction, shape and decoration have varied. The survival rate also suggests that knives were not subjected to hard, repeated use. Although this knife is sharply pointed to enable it both to cut and skewer meat, fingers were used for much of the meal. The fork was introduced in Europe via Italy where it was used for eating delicacies like sweetmeats. Its use did not become widespread until the late 15th century when nobles and wealthy merchants were its main market. France, Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, Britain and Scandinavia gradually adopted it as cutomary during the 17th century. Until this time the fork was not considered essential for eating. Treatises warning people against touching food when one's fingers had already been in one's mouth may have contributed to a rise in standards of hygiene and the fork was the perfect tool to encourage this. Details:
- Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries It is unclear which piece of the set was measured and recorded in the Register. The entry for Lot 2375 in the Spitzer Collection sale catalogue (1893) records the lengths of the objects as 17.3cm (Knife), 14.8cm (fork) and 13.8cm (skewer).
- Gallery 26, Case 8 KNIFE, FORK, SKEWER IN A SHEATH Iron, partly gilt and leather FRENCH; about 1550 M.602-1910 Salting Bequest This set of knife, fork and skewer in a travelling leather sheath is decorated with fine arabesque designs.(04/09/1991)
- KNIFE, FORK AND SKEWER IN A SHEATH Iron, partly gilt, and leather French; about 1550 Salting Bequest This set of knife, fork and skewer in a travelling leather sheath is decorated with fine arabesque designs.
Books & Resources Brigitte Webster recommends:
The cook books are only available directly from Brigitte at firstname.lastname@example.org and retail at $50 plus shipping. Each book is signed and can include any message of your choice.