We do not know exactly when the fork first appeared nor, for that matter, if there is even a recognised definition of the object. Although everyone agrees what a spoon or a knife is, the definition of a fork is somewhat unclear. General consensus holds that it is a table utensil used to prick food to pick it up, to pass it from a serving dish to a plate, to hold it whilst cutting and to carry it to the mouth. But, for there is a big ‘but’, it is not exactly the same thing to prick food from a collective dish or an individual plate, or to prick food to carry it from one place to another, or to carry food to the mouth. And, we will come back to this later, is it really the same object as the two-pronged fork, which is basically more of a serving cutlery item, or the small individual four-pronged dessert fork? Various dictionaries address this issue, defining the fork as a ‘two, three or four-pronged utensil’. It is worth mentioning, however, that the word did not appear in the French language before approximately 1300.
All of this does nothing to resolve the issue of the fork’s origins. It is, however, sure and certain that utensils were used in Antiquity to prick food from dishes, witnessed by the fact that they have been discovered in archaeological digs in the Middle-East and in Egypt. Yet their purpose is not clear and it seems they were used more as serving utensils than to carry food to the mouth. The fork is thought to have appeared in Italy around the year 1000, in Venice, and in addition to its recorded use as a cutting aid, it is also said to have been used to eat the first pasta. As of the Middle Ages, utensils resembling two-pronged forks were mentioned in several French Kings’ inventories. We can therefore safely assume that the fork was still only a serving utensil at the time, not used individually and had seemingly not conquered European tables, let alone French tables. How it arrived in France is an old story: It is reported to have arrived in Catherine de Médicis’ trunks, along with numerous other refined Italian items. Another legend states that Henry III discovered it during a trip to Venice and adopted it for his personal use, finding it practical when wearing ruffled collars (weightless pleated collars), which were fashionable at the time.
In reality, its dissemination as a utensil to carry food to the mouth is more likely to have happened progressively in Europe as of the end of the Middle Ages, most probably beginning in Italy. A few specimens have been found from around this time and forks also appear on certain paintings and in inventories.