The Devil’s Tines

Early 17th Century French fork

The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:

Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not 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 it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating. 

His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.

Despite these prohibitions forks were common in Italy by the 16th century. Aristocrats brought their own knives and forks to dinner in a special box called a cadena. The fashion spread to France when Catherine de Medici married Henri, son of King Francis I. But the French were mocked for their effete manners. In 1605 one court observer noted with astonishment:

They would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than their fingers.

The English, suspicious as always of continental customs, were slow to adopt forks. Some denounced them as a feminine affectation, while Elizabeth I refused to use them, calling “spearing an uncouth action.” In 1633 Charles I, proving himself out of touch with his people in this as in so much else, declared “it is decent to use a fork.” His son Charles II picked up continental manners during his exile and brought forks with him to England at the Restoration, perhaps just one more sign of the decadence of his court. But back in France Louis XIV was having doubts; he forbade his children to use forks. In Italy clerical opposition to forks persisted and caused some to have religious scruples. Eduardo Galeano reported:

Every time musician Claudio Monteverdi felt obliged to use a fork he purchased three masses to pay for his sins. 

At this point I will refrain from making a pun about tuning forks.

Detail of The Last Judgement by Stefan Lochner 1435

While all this wrangling over table manners was going on the fork became more and more associated with the devil. According to The Devil and Demons in Medieval Art the earliest depictions of Satan date to the 6th century. For their horrifying scenes of hell and the devil medieval artists borrowed from pagan symbolism. The horned god Pan bequeathed his horns to the devil and at some point Neptune handed over his trident so the devil could use it to pitch sinners into the flames. Other artists may have used the image of this common agricultural implement so viewers could relate the Doom paintings to their own lives. For centuries Satan was rarely seen without his pitchfork, either the two or three tined variety. This association with the ultimate symbol of evil inevitably tarnished the image of the dinner fork. (Well, I couldn’t avoid that one).

In America forks did not catch on until after the Revolution. According to John Francis Dow in Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony the Puritans ate with knives, spoons, and fingers. They agreed with the Catholic clergy of Venice from 600 years before. John Winthrop himself called forks evil and claimed that the only thing worthy of touching God’s food was fingers.

This obscure bit of history is the backstory to Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel Hour of the Witch. Bohjalian says he had long wanted to write about New England Puritanism and its patriarchal hypocrisy. His immediate inspiration came from a reference in Boston’s Court of Assistants of 1672 in which a woman named Nanny Naylor sued her husband for divorce on grounds of cruelty. From this reference and the strange history of the fork he spins a richly imagined and suspenseful tale that takes us back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1662.

Mary is a young woman who came to the colony from England with her Puritan parents and was married off to a much older man. He is bitter that Mary fails to bear him a child and turns abusive. In this society a woman who cannot get pregnant becomes the target of suspicion and rumor. Mary causes more gossip when she turns to a herbalist for help, a woman already suspected of being a witch. One night her drunken husband stabs her hand with a fork and she determines to seek a divorce. Her situation becomes more perilous when two forks are found buried in the soil outside her house, suggesting a deal with the devil to make her pregnant. But how did she come in possession of the Devil’s Tines? Well her father is a merchant and he imported these luxury goods to the colony despite Puritan disapproval. In a glaring example of patriarchal hypocrisy he faces no consequences, indeed he retains his status as one of the Saved, but Mary is soon accused of witchcraft.

Bohjalian’s skill as a storyteller combined with his chilling evocation of New England Puritan society makes this a standout historical novel. History and suspense and evil cutlery, what more could you ask from a summer read? 

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