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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.

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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!

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

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This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.

I do remember him at Clement's Inn, like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring. When ‘a was naked, he was for all the world like a fork'd radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife.
Falstaff

Henry IV Part II (III.2)

Portrait sketch of Thomas Coryat, “the British Traveller” undated. The British Library. Source

Thomas Coryat

Thomas Coryat, in his publication titled Coryat’s Crudities, dated 1611, when Shakespeare was 47 years old. He writes

“ I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through the which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I thinke that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meat.”

He goes on to describe the act of eating with knife and fork at a table before saying

“This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forkes being for the most part made of yron or steele, and some of silver, but those are used only by Gentlemen.”

Thomas continues by saying that he thought it good to imitate the fashion, not only in Germany where he was from, but he specifically cites that he used the fork in England, where he was made fun of by someone there who called him a “table furcifer for using a fork at feeding, but for no other cause.” (Source)

Brigitte explains some of the cultural references from the 16th century that played into these fork related insuts.

“Pitch fork handler” from Latin word for villain, play on the name of Lucifer. John Taylor called him this, for having adopted the fork while encountering it on his travels. 

Talyor referred to Thomas as “forked ferretted…” 

Tudor marmalade used a fork becuase it was tacky and sticky. There were two pronged forked used for carving and picking up delicacies. But forks as regular table utentsil were introduced first in Italy, and evne then they were elaborate, expensive utensils used only my the most wealthy. 

The fork was considered overly posh and wholly unneccesary for the average person. It would not be until the 18th century that the fork was widely used. It alarmed moralists who feared eating with the new tool would weaken a person or corrupt their character. 

Let it fall rather, though the fork invade The region of my heart!
Earl of Kent

King Lear (I.1)

From the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cutlery Setca. 1580 – ca. 1600 (made) | “This ivory knife case contains 12 knives and one fork. Knife cases such as this were designed to be portable. A black substance has been rubbed into the engraving to emphasise the outlines. Ivory was prized during the 16th century for its beauty and rarity….Knives have been used since prehistoric times, but the history of knives, forks and spoons for eating in Europe probably commenced in the fourteenth century, and their use became accepted by the sixteenth century. Until the late seventeenth century it seems to have been common practice for people to carry their own cutlery, often in a leather case.” Source

Diners brought their own utensils

William Shakespeare's great grandparents would have been among the first in England to use cutlery on a regular basis but by the time William Shakespeare was eating his meals in Stratford Upon Avon as well as London, it was common place to a person to carry their own tableware. 

Unlike today where a dining restaurant or business establishment will often provide utensils to the patron, for the 16th century, each person carried knives (and occasionally a fork, but not often) in a special carrying case. While it was usually made of leather and designed to be highly portable, as this example from the Victoria and Albery Museum  demonstrates, they could also be quite ornate. 

As Brigitte shares in this week's episode, use of cutlery was considered a high class accessory.

Forks were used primarily for picking up sticky sweet meat and other sweets but not for putting food in your mouth. Knives for eating were the only table tools even for the wealthy. The lower classes weould not have had these kinds of tools at the table, and did not consider that they might need things like a fork, since for the 16th century a fork was only neccessary if you were eating somethign which could not be picked up with your hands–like a sticky, sugary, dessert. Since the lower classes could not afford sugar, they were often unlikely to possess the forks used for that purpose. Instead, the people of England known as the “Middling sort” would have most likely eaten with pewter spoons as well as earthenware vessels at their tables. 

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[Lays down her dagger.]

Stage Directions

Romeo and Juliet (IV.3)

Pair of wedding knives at Victoria and Albert Museum. “This presentation set of two knives in a carrying sheath was probably given as a wedding gift to a bride. Knives were used for cutting food and carrying it to the mouth, with the fingers. The use of forks became widespread in England only after 1660, following the example set by Charles II (ruled 1660-1685). The formal place setting of knife, fork and spoon was not established in England until about 1700.” (Source)

Juliet's Dagger is a Wedding Knife

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, they have in their collection a set of knives called “Wedding Knives” and as Brigitte explains this week, Wedding knives were a very popular gift for brides on the occasion of their wedding, and could have potentially been the why Juliet has a dagger on her person in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, after they are married, and why Shakespeare makes a distinction in the stage directions to indicate specifically “her dagger” in Act IV  vs “Romeo's dagger” later in Act V. For the 16-17th century, to have a woman with a wedding knife is the same recognizable symbolism indicating a marriage had taken place that a character wearing wedding ring on stage would be today.

The personal nature of cutlery made them popular gifts at key rights of passage like weddings or baptism. Both the Bride and Groom exchanged foods at weddings. An English bridegroom commonly gave his new wife a pair of “bride knives” which was a practice common in early modern Holland. Knives are shown in many dutch paintings.

It is believed that this charming custom was introduced to England by continental members of Henry VIII’s court. The bride was expected to use and keep them for the duration of the marriage. Symbolic of the couple, she would have made an embroidered or beaded sheath for it to be stored in called a “Coal and string.” Women carried these knives on their very person. The knives were frequently made in pairs, with one being used to cut bread and the second primarily for cutting meat. Richard Barnfield, in a poem called “the Affectionate shepherd” from 1594 talks about “a paire of knives, a green hat, and the feather, new gloves to put upon thy milk white hand” in a romantic expression of love and devotion connected with marriage.

Shakespeare's 1597 Folio insisted that Juliet should wear her wedding knives, and in his publication “Folklore of ShakespeareT. F. Thiselton Dyer explains: 

Strange, too, as it may appear, it is nevertheless certain that knives and daggers were formerly part of the customary accoutrements of brides. Thus, Shakespeare, in the old quarto, 1597, makes Juliet wear a knife at the friar's cell, and when she is about to take the potion. This custom, however, is easily accounted for, when we consider that women anciently wore a knife suspended from their girdle. Many allusions to this practice occur in old writers. In Dekker's Match Me in London 1631, a bride says to her jealous husband: “See, at my girdle hang my wedding knives!/ With those dispatch me.” (Source)

This “coal and string” symbolism, shown in the potrait here, was a readily recognizable symbol of matrimony, even extending to the tomb of one 16th century coupone, William and his wife Anne Rugle who died in 1530. Brigitte explains that their tomb shows her figure with her purse below her left hand, and on her right side, her coal and string are showing.

Romeo & Juliet In this print, Juliet is shown wearing her coal and string. That pouch hanging down from her waist is a 16th century symbol of marriage and would have included her wedding knife. Abstract/medium: 1 print : black and white lithograph ; sheet 61 x 49 cm. (poster format) Library of Congress. Source

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Related Episode You Might Enjoy

Behold yond simp'ring dame, Whose face between her forks presageth snow…
King Lear

King Lear (IV.6)

Late 15th century German cutlery set. Artist Unknown. “Banquets were an important part of medieval life. They were elaborate occasions designed to show of the wealth and splendour of the host and to honour the guests. Carving meat at the banquet was an important part of the ritual. Sets like this one were often made from precious materials, as carving was a very public part of the feast. The appointed carver would use two knives, one to hold the meat and the other to keep it steady. This set also includes a skewer, a fork and a broad bladed knife for serving.” Source

16th C Forks had Two Prongs

Knives together with spoons were the “flat plates” (Flatware) for most people. High class gold/silver and the fork and the knife were made of tougher steele. Forks for picking up sticky sweet meat and other sweets but not for putting it in your mouth, were the only tools even for the wealthy. Nobody else had these kinds of tools, not needing them, since sugar to create them was an expensive staple. Middling sort had at least pewter spoons. 

Unlike forks at tables today, the forks in the 16th century would have had two prongs, and been fantastically ornate. Often studded with gems or crusted with gold, later period examples show three prongs, but the 4 prong wouldn’t appear until the 18th century. All of these were a way to flaunt your wealth as much as anything practical for serving or eating food. The fork was for the very uber wealthy, highlyconsidered uneccessary. Fork was identified with women and eating sweets. There is a famous dutch painting by “The bean king” Jacob Jordans the Elder from 1640, it is in the Vienna museum, and shows a lady holding a fork, clearly enjoying a sweet meat. 

As they were considered personal items, and not provided by eating establishments, each person had a special carrying case they would have used for their knives.  In Europe it developed quite differently than in America. The tines of a fork were longer and sharper and held in the left hand, tines pointing downward.

“Bauire” and Basil, Firetongs, Cauldron with 3 legs, Bellows, Fork, Bucket. | Copied partly from German models (Dürer, the grotesque alphabet of 1464, etc.). Contains the arms of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, d. 1513, and of the Emperor Charles V (after 1519). Average folio size: 410 x 280 mm. | Slide roll title: MS. Ashmole 1504. ‘The Tudor pattern book'. | Material: Parchment | Source

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Immediately access the entire video library of That Shakespeare Life, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, activities, and more! 

Books & Resources Brigitte Webster recommends:

 

The cook books are only available directly from Brigitte at brigittewebster@tudorexperience.com and retail at $50 plus shipping. Each book is signed and can include any message of your choice.

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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