Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Who Brought Us the Fork?

Will the Real Byzantine Princess Responsible, Please Stand Up?
For those living in the 18th century who couldn’t afford the silver or gold of royalty, nobility or the upper classes, wood and steel and other materials were ideal for making two-tined forks with which to dine. But who was the Byzantine Princess of record to first publicly brought a small, gold, two-timed fork to her lips? Maria Argyropoulina? Maria Sforza Visconti? Princess Argila? We at Etiquipedia are having a tough time unraveling the mystery.
Two days ago I received an email from Dobrochna Giedwidz (@etiquette_now on Instagram), offering Etiquipedia the name of the Byzantine Princess who has long been credited with introducing Western Europe to the “table fork.” Grateful to be able to add the name to our Etiquette Encyclopedia, I sought to learn more about Princess Maria Argyropoulina’s use of forks. Sadly, it hasn’t been easy. The following is what I have found so far:

File Under “How it Started”

FORKS: The table fork is comparatively modern. It was first introduced in Venice by a Byzantine princess, and its use rapidly spread throughout Italy. In an inventory of the court of Charles V of France, dated 1370, there is mention of silver forks; but for some time the use of those instruments was satirized. Certain French and Scottish convents even forbade them as sinful. Their original form was two-tined; The three and four-tined varieties came later. — San Pedro News Pilot, 1921

The Genesis of the Fork 
By the way, it is just about 900 years ago since the fork made its appearance in Europe. In 995 A.D. a son of the doge, Pietro Orseolo, wedded in Venice the Byzantine Princess Argila, who produced at the wedding breakfast a silver fork and gold spoon. Then the high Venetian families followed suit, and these martyrs to fashion pricked their lips with the new instrument, though the church opposed the fashion as insult to Providence. The fork prospered, however, and in the next 360 years it had reached Florence and spread over Italy. In 1579, it had traveled as far as France, and in 1608 a traveler brought it direct to England. — London Times, 1897

The Fork

In the ancient world the fork for eating was unknown, and the well-bred sought to display as much delicacy as possible in the operation of conveying food to the mouth with the fingers. It was a thousand years ago when the first mention of the “forchetta” was made in Italian literature, and it was then spoken of as introduced into Venice by a Byzantine princess. 

It was at first not favorably received, and for two centuries came little into use, either in Italy or the rest of Europe. No mention of a fork was made in the catalogue of the table furnishings at the wedding of Maria Sforza Visconti as late as 1493. Still, the 15th century saw its use spreading in France, and the 16th in Germany. It was not until the 17th century that it was introduced in England. — Humboldt Times, 1882

Waiter There’s a Fork in My Soup
The year is 1004 and at the party celebrating her marriage to the son of the doge of Venice, Maria Argyropoulina, niece to the emperor of Byzantium, has scandalised the guests. Her crime: using a fork to eat. At the time, people generally cut up food with knives and transferred it to their mouths with their fingers. Forks did exist, but they were large, two-pronged implements used for toasting or carving meat. Occasionally, people used smaller versions to fish things out of jars. Maria, however, used one of these to put food in her mouth. 
Her wayward behaviour was immediately condemned by the clergy. One priest declared that “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers.” When Maria died of the plague two years later, it was seen as divine punishment for her decadence. Yet today we would look down on anyone who didn’t use a fork. Its transformation from a heretical utensil into an everyday one is a parable of technological adoption. — From an article by Tom Standage, 1843 Magazine, 2018 

We are still doing the research to verify that the Byzantine Princess who first started the use of the “table fork,” was indeed Princess Maria Argyropoulina. Maria Argyropoulina and the “Byzantine Princess Argila,” are one in the same, according to several sources. We also found this notation on Maria, “she was probably the ‘wife of a doge’” alluded to by the Benedictine monk and later Saint, Peter Damian, “criticizing her use of fork, perfumes and dew for bathing.”

We are guessing that Princess
Maria Argyropoulina (aka Princess Maria Argila), has little or nothing to do with Maria Sforza Visconti and the lack of forks mentioned with regard to her wedding. Maybe we are wrong, or dates have been confused, or she is somehow, in some way, related to Maria Argyropoulina. But it seems rather odd to have another Byzantine Princess Maria’s name connected to the fork’s introduction to Western Europe, so we will continue to search for more on this subject. We also look forward to hearing more from Dobrochna Giedwidz in the future.— Site Editor, Maura J. Graber

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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