In the private apartment of the Medici family in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, there is a small chapel devoted to fragments from the life of Maria di Medici. It is an extraordinarily beautiful room, filled to bursting with wonderful objects. The walls are covered with an ornate wooden filigree, the glass on the windows expensively thick and wavy filtering in golden light from the Mediterranean sun. But the most attention grabbing item in the room is the large painting that entirely fills one wall, depicting the scene of Maria’s engagement to Henri IV. A group of angels hold up a rather idealized portrait of her betrothed, a ship full of French treasure in the background. Clustered around Maria’s feet are emblems of Italian wealth and sophistication, porcelain, jewelry, musical instruments, and a small rectangular box.
The professor I originally saw the painting with took special care to point out the box, telling us that it contained Maria’s most important contribution to French society. We guessed wildly at the identity of mysterious contents of the box. Could it be some priceless gem, or a Da Vinci code like cypher? Much more mundane then that, the box was called a “cadena,” and inside was nestled a little silver-tined fork. Aside from her role as mother of Louis XIV and crown regent, her fame as a master political manipulator who controlled the course of European politics for nearly a century, Maria’s key historical legacy was that it was her marriage that introduced the fork to France, and, eventually, to the rest of European society and the Americas.
Although we use them every day to twirl up noodles, shovel in mashed potatoes, and hold down our meat and vegetables as we chop them into tiny bits, we don’t often give much consideration to the humble fork. And now days, humble is exactly what it is. You can find forks mouldering away in discount warehouses and thrift stores the world over, used in hovels and homeless shelters and mental hospitals. But when it Maria di Medici first brought the table fork to France, it was seen as a luxurious indulgence, adopted only by ambitious nobles who brought along their own cadenas filled with ornately gilded and bejeweled silverware in an attempt to impress the queen when dining at the court.
It was a time of turmoil in the world of flatware, when the historic use of knives and fingers was slowly evolving across Europe, with the fork gaining popularity with regular Italians, and the spoon quickly catching on in Germany, both trends aided by the increasing popularity of dangling bell sleeves in women’s fashion. Still, most French citizens saw the practice as a bit vain and silly, and it took some time for the practice to catch on with the populace. In England, the phrase “fork barer” even came into use as an insult against men who were seen as vain or effeminate.
Thomas Coryat, an English traveler, even wrote in his memoirs of his travels through Italy that it had become rude to eat meals without a fork, especially in polite company. To appease his hosts, he took up the practice of fork use, and even brought the implement back to England with him as a curiosity, where its use was taken up in the court of Henry V, although only in cases where the court was consuming finger staining food dressed with dark sauces.
In much of Byzantium and the Middle East, forks had been in widespread use for years. In fact, early evidence of individual table forks date back to ancient Greece and Rome, and although their use had faded out in Europe during the Middle Ages, they never fell out of popularity in many other places in the world. But in Europe forks had long been the providence of the rich and sinful, and were most commonly used by courtesans to consume honey-preserved fruits. Maria di Medici’s introduction of the fork into French polite society was seen as combining broth and brothel, elevating the sensuality of food to a near-sexual plane.
Ironically, the backlash against Maria di Medici was a much less severe historical echo of the treatment of the woman who had first brought the fork to Italy in the eleventh century. Maria Argyropoulina was a Byzantine princess who, when she wed the Venetian Dodge, brought as part of her dowery a suitcase of golden-tined forks to be used at her wedding feast.
Like her descendent Maria di Medici, Maria Argyropoulina’s introduction of the fork into Italian society was seen as an example of unnecessary foreign luxury, but while Maria di Medici’s importing of the fork was seen as silly at worst, Maria Argyropoulina’s carrying case full of gold forks was seen as an insult against god. After all, the local clergy reasoned, God in his infinite wisdom had provided men with a perfectly good set of fingers to use as natural forks. Why should we insult Him by attempting to replace them with some puny human invention?
Substituting man made implements for the divine was the purist form of decadence, and Maria’s actions were seen as flying in the face of divine reason. When she had the misfortune to fall ill with the plague a few years later, her death was widely seen as justified divine retribution. Still, the damage had been done, and the fork had become a well established part of Italian mealtime etiquette, its popularity no doubt fueled by the considerable difficulty one encounters attempting to eat spaghetti with a spoon and knife.
So the next time you sit down to a meal, polish your grandmother’s silverware collection, or even just tell somebody rude to stick a fork in it, remember that you are a part of culinary history.