Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Knife & Fork Set

Object 74 - A knife and fork set from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Victoria Jackson

This post is by Victoria Jackson who is a doctoral researcher from the History Department at the University of Birmingham. 

Knife and fork
LSBT 1952-2 A late 16th/early 17th century knife and fork set from the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Why do we use cutlery?  It is not self-evident or instinctive – other cultures don’t use it and for the greater part of the medieval and early modern periods cutlery was not used at the table in England and Europe.  Most of us probably feel that eating with our fingers or hands seems unhygienic, yet we eat a variety of food with our hands everyday: chocolate, sandwiches, fruit, cake, crisps, and the list goes on.  In the 1920s the German sociologist Norbert Elias argued that the reason we don’t eat with our hands is not because it’s seen as unhygienic, but because we are conditioned to feel that it is barbaric or uncivilized to put food into the mouth with one’s hand, especially in the company of others.[1]  Elias went on to contend that cutlery, and more specifically the fork, is the thing that civilizes us, separates the eating practices of animals and humans, and transforms the act of eating into the refined ritual of dining.  Thus, I think it’s important to regard forks, knives and spoons as things that extend beyond their practical uses, embodying far more than a means to bring food to the mouth.  Not only do they speak to the central role that eating and food plays in our lives, their forms and materiality signify how past societies regarded the rituals of dining.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust dates this knife and fork set in their collection to the early 1600s.  The two-pronged fork was probably used for eating sweetmeats, such as preserved ginger, marzipan, or candied fruits.  (Another sweetmeat fork was recently excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre in London and appeared as an object in the British Museum’s project Shakespeare’s Restless World.  The use of forks for this purpose was still a novelty in early seventeenth-century England and was essentially a luxury article of the higher social classes. While sweetmeat forks were often made of gold and silver, the fork in the Shakespeare Birthplace collection incorporates iridescent ‘bloodstone’, a rare and exotic mineral. The set could be slid into the accompanying leather sheath, which is stamped with a Tudor rose, making this a personal and transportable cutlery set to be taken with you to dine in public or at another’s home. For discussion of the meanings of knife sheaths, see Peter Hewitt’s earlier blog on object 17, a decorated box wood sheath.

Cutlery was also commonly given as a gift.  In England, a pair of knives was a customary wedding present gifted from grooms to their new bride, while silver Apostle Spoons were given at births and christenings.  In wills, the bequest of cutlery is often recorded alongside its previous ownership, perhaps to enhance the value of the object.  For example, the 1597 will of Thomas Crispe records that he gave his son Samuel two spoons, one of which ‘shalbe the selfe same spone which his godmother gave unto him’, thereby illustrating the material endurance inherent in the bequest but also drawing a connection to family history and lineage.[2]  Thus forks, knives and spoons commemorated essential rites of passage like marriage and birth, but also functioned to extend the memory of close kin, as a perpetual reminder of ancestral heritage.

[1] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1924), 49, 55, and 103.

[2] Catherine Richardson, Domestic life and domestic tragedy in early modern England: the material life of the household (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 70.