History I Never Knew: Table Manners

In the end, you’ve got to give the credit for the rise of dining etiquette to the Italians. Not surprising. But it wasn’t always that way.

Here’s (some of) the rest of the story, taken from the latest National Geographic  History issue.

Dogaressa Theodora Anna Doukaina

By the end of the first millennium, knives, spoons and cups – usually shared – were available at dinnertime. But the fork had a terrible time getting established as a third utensil. One of the earliest recorded uses of a fork was by Theodora Anna Doukaina, a Byzantine princess who came to Venice in 1070 to marry Doge Domenico Selvo.

Dogaressa Anna brought a two-pronged fork with her, and she used it to put food into her mouth. The horror!  The Venetians, seeing themselves as cultured and sophisticated, were scandalized.  The Vatican’s representative (surprise, surprise) to Venice suggested that the fork was a diabolical instrument.  Maybe it looked like Satan’s pitchfork.  But Anna’s new tool caught on, and its use started to spread through Italy.

The rest of Europe continent was slower on the uptake than were the Italians. Some other Europeans tried to put some class into dining manners. Spanish theologian Francesc Eiximenis  wrote in 1384, “If you have spat or blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth.”  But if the diner did need to spit during a meal, he advised “do it behind you, never on the table or anyone else.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, also took a crack at table manners. In his De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (Handbook of Good Manners for Children) he wrote “Some people, no sooner than they have sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food. This is the manner of wolves…To shove your fingers into dishes with sauce is very rude. You should pick up what you want with a knife or fork. And you should not pick out bits from all over the dish.”

The doyenne of manners was Catherine de Medici of Florence. She went to France to marry King Henry II in 1533. She was appalled by French table manners. An account by the Italian court ladies stated,

“Here in Paris many people still laughed at ‘those Italian neatnesses called forks’ and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat with their knife-ends or greasy fingers.”

Catherine de Medici

Catherine, the Martha Stewart of her day, mounted a campaign to bring class to French dining. She introduced individual cutlery, plates, napkins, and fine stemware for grand occasions.  The napkins were used to protect delicate, decorative tablecloths and the diners’ clothing. Proper placement of the napkin was over the left shoulder.

The French didn’t accept the fork right away. It took until the 18th century for etiquette guides to recognize the fork as an individual dining implement. Catherine de Medici’s son, King Henry III, was widely mocked for his use of a fork.  He was also regarded as effete and homosexual, and was a favorite target of the local snobs.

French writer Thomas Artus, ridiculing courtly manners in his work Description of the Island of Hermaphrodites, wrote “When dining, they never touch the meat with their fingers but instead with forks, which they put in their mouths by stretching their necks.”

Sheesh.  I guess people have never needed the anonymity of social media to be downright nasty.

Nowadays, I suppose, French cuisine is thought of as the crème dela crème.  But before the French say “Bon appetit,” maybe they should first say “Grazie” to the Italians.  If they don’t, I will.

Grazie!

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