Back in Biblical times people ate with their fingers, typically from a shared pot. Jesus states during his Last Passover Supper that he thinks one of the Twelve disciples has betrayed him to the Romans. He only says it’s someone dipping into the pot with him, which they were all doing. In retrospect, Judas is identified and blamed.
Still today in the Arab world people eat with their fingers and share food from a common pot. This is why Arabs are so much more scrupulous than Westerners about washing their hands before they eat. It’s also why they have the convention a clean (right) hand for writing, shaking hands and eating, and the left hand for, you know, wiping.
Which also increases the punishment of having a hand cut off for theft. Then what? Would you want to have someone share a meal with you, if they’ve only got one hand – for everything?
So the medieval invention of the small fork for use at the table would seem like a good idea. (Industrial-size ones for cooking had been used by the Romans and others for centuries.) But you know what religious people are like when someone wants to introduce any sort of change – “It’s not sanctioned by Scripture! It’s the work of the Devil!”
Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article, “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork“:
Forks for dining only started to appear in the noble courts of the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common among wealthy families of the regions by the 10th century. Elsewhere, including Europe, where the favored implements were the knife and the hand, the fork was conspicuously absent.
Imagine the astonishment then when in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks—and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. She was roundly condemned by the local clergy for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, “God in His wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”
When Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian, with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”
What a great post, Robin. I love these little historical tidbits and your blog is full of them. Thanks!
This is all kinds of awesome. I wish it were possible to get religious extremists to think reflectively enough to see that their own religion changes over time. The ones I know are all convinced that, like god, they are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Religious beliefs spread, change and die in perfectly normal evolutionary ways. The most adaptable survive their ever-changing environment.
Love the info, thanks!
That’s a forking good story.
Being left-handed, my entire time in the Middle East was a bit of a mess – it’s not just eating, it’s passing stuff to people -> left hand is a no-no.
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