The History of Cutlery

Very little feels more commonplace than a knife and fork. We take our eating utensils for granted and we can’t imagine anyone enjoying a ‘civilised’ meal without them, but as we know, that hasn’t always been the case. So, how did cutlery develop, and which came first – the knife or the fork?

Well that would be the knife. It’s been around in some form or another since the Paleolithic age – mostly it took the shape of sharpened flint, and it was used more as a weapon than as an eating utensil. It was as civilisation moved into the Neolithic age (5000 to 2000 BC) that the stone blade took on a wooden handle and by 1000 BC man had moved onto iron knives. The table knife as we know it, with a single cutting edge and a blunt end, is thought to be attributed to Cardinal Richelieu – a French clergyman, nobleman, and statesman – in 1637. The story goes that Richelieu had these knives fashioned in the hopes of discouraging dinner guests from picking their teeth with their knife-points. A few years after that King Louis XIV of France insisted on the blunt dinner knife, banning all pointed knives from his table in an effort to reduce violence – apparently unhappy dinner guests were prone to using their sharp knives for more than just eating.

Forks on the other hand, while always there in one rudimentary form or another – think forked twigs – were more than likely invented for personal use in the Eastern Roman Empire around the 4th century. By the 11th century the table fork was very popular in the Italian peninsula and grew in popularity thanks to that nation’s love of pasta – prior to that, pasta had been eaten using a long wooden spike. It was introduced into the French court by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, and its use gradually spread until by the 18th century most of Europe had adopted it as an eating utensil. It was later in the middle 1800s, in Germany, that the fork took on its curved form and grew into its four-tine design.

Interestingly enough, during the Middle Ages, diners never expected the host to provide eating utensils; this was something you brought along yourself in a traveller’s kit. And at that stage it was still only the well-to-do who used cutlery, commoners used their hands and old stale bread as plates – imagine trying that at your next dinner party, yet another reason to be thankful about far we’ve come!