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The spoon

The long career of the oldest eating tool

A long, long time ago a good fairy gave a gift to a poor little girl: it was a small pot that would cook sweet porridge whenever the little girl felt hungry. One day the little girl was not at home and its mother wanted to use the pot. The pot started cooking and never stopped until all the streets of the village were blocked up with porridge and nobody could enter the village without eating a passage right through it. But the mother did not know how to make the pot stop cooking.
Who cannot remember this fairytale from his childhood days?

In modern times only new born human beings are fed with mash, but in everyday eating habits mash does no longer play an important role. This used to be different. Until the Middle Ages for the majority of man kind a mash or a thick soup made out of millet, oat, wheat, rye or – since Columbus discovered America –corn was the basic constituent of their daily diet.

The most important eating tool for this simple mash or soup the poor and the country people lived on was the spoon. It is – together with the knife which was used to cut up food but was also used as a craftsman’s tool – the oldest eating instrument of man.

For noble food like meat and fish the spoon was never used, these delicacies got to the table all cut up and ready to eat with one’s fingers. Therefore it is no wonder that table scenes or still lives older than the 16th century seldom depict a spoon, only very rarely elaborate serving spoons appear. At a rich man’s table the spoon simply was not necessary. And the poor man’s table, traditionally fitted with eating spoons, was not thought of as a proper motif for art and painting.

For several thousand years the easily accessible wood was the raw material everyone with a little bit of skill could make his own spoon from. The material got worn out quite soon, but as a wooden spoon was easy to replace, a damaged one could be thrown away without a second thought. Because most of them just decomposed, only very rarely a wooden spoon is discovered in archaeological excavations of former rubbish pits or latrines. For a museum those finds are rare and precious pieces.

The early design of the spoon stayed almost unaltered until the 15th and 16th century: a circular, shallow bowl – probably imitating a cupped hand – and a short, wide handle. From the 16th century onwards the many changes of this epoch did also change the shape and material of the spoon.

On the one hand there was the increasing trade with Mediterranean and oriental countries, which brought strange and as yet unknown food, spices and fruit to middle Europe and changed the simple and often unbalanced diet of those countries. The food supply got more varied, richer and far more luxurious.

In Europe the social gap between town and country became more and more obvious. While the country people stuck to their traditional diet, the eating habits especially of the nobility changed essentially. The well-to-do middle class city-dwellers tried to imitate them as good as possible.

Until the late Middle Ages it was perfectly normal to just use a wooden spoon which people used to carry either in a leather container on their belts or stuck to their hat-band. When invited to dinner, you had to bring your own spoon. In the 17th century it got more and more common that at a festive dinner the host equipped each guest with his own spoon, and the soup was no longer served in one big bowl all guest would eat from together. Still the spoon had a wide, short handle, but it was no longer a simple utensil. Those who could afford it had pewter spoons made for them. Wooden spoons got more elaborate with handles covered in silver. Expensive woods became the popular raw material for spoons and the handles were decorated with elaborate carvings. Such valuable and precious tableware in society was used as symbols of success and prestige.

On the other hand fashion also changed the shape of the spoon. In the first half of the 17th century the “Spanish style” of clothing with a wide collar and quite voluminous arms strongly influenced the design of the spoon. A very long spoon handle was necessary to elegantly raise a spoonful of food to the mouth without soiling the collar. And a deeper bowl, oval or pear-shaped, was of advantage for the now longer distance the food had to cover until reaching its destination.

Now people adopted the new, more “civilised” table manners which banned the popular habits of burping, spitting, blowing one’s nose into the table cloth or greedily devouring one’s food. One of the first books on good behaviour in the beginning of the 16th century (maybe by Erasmus) recommended that “the nobility should avoid such misbehaviour”. It was now fashionable, too, to elegantly hold the spoon handle using three fingers and the thumb, while it was formerly held with the whole fist.

During hundreds of years the spoon used to be an indispensable comrade of man and was deeply rooted in tradition. It was so important in everyday life that it was used in metaphors describing important stages of life. Thus somebody enjoying worldly riches as well as happiness was said to “have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth”. And when life was coming to an end, people had to “give away the spoon”. For their christening children used to be given (and sometimes still are) precious christening spoons, which were carefully preserved and later given to one’s own offspring. At a wedding the young couple was presented with a so called love spoon with symbols of love and fertility or with wise inscriptions. In Wales it was a tradition for the groom to give his bride a self-made wooden spoon bearing two or more bowls to hint at the fact that for the couple-to-be as well as their children there would always be enough to eat. (en)

Further sayings tell us about the fool who tried to eat “wisdom with a skimmer” or the criminal who “stole the silver spoons”. And who probably later had to “spoon up the soup he had prepared for himself”...

The Knife

An All Around Utensil

The theme “knife”; with all of its functional connections of tool and weapon and to kitchen and eating utensil, runs through the entire exhibition of the “German Blade Museum”. More information about knives outside of the use at the “set dining table” can be found under “the Knife”.

During the epochs of the middle ages and the early modern age the knife was a “Multi-tool”. It was used to do its daily tasks in the workshop, in the garden, while traveling, in the kitchen and at the dining table. Usually men and women carried their own individual knife in a sheath with themselves. These rather raw instruments influenced table manners. In the so called “table manners” found in the “books of etiquette” in the late middle ages the reader was constantly tattled and warned that the guests at the dining table should not clean their teeth with the point of the blade, wave the knife around at the table, or even threaten other guests with the knife (it seems as if these examples were of  the “usual” behavior at that time).

The Knife at the Dining Table

The actual “table knife” as part of a set “Besteck” appears for the first time in the 15th century in the royal courts in Italy, and France. These small two pieced, paired utensils in matching design were factually the beginning of our everyday silverware “Besteck” set.

The characteristics of the early table knives are the small size and the progressively  rounded end of the blade. It took over 200 years until the table knife established its place in the common household. It was still partially common in the rural life to eat with only a spoon and fingers up until the early part of the 20th century.

The Fork

A New Guest at The Table

The fork is the youngest eating utensil used at the dining table. The fork has been used since the ancient times; not to eat with at the dining table, but as a small silver service fork to skewer sticky candy and fruit.

The fork was still a rare and “strange instrument” in the Renaissance around 400 years ago. This was mentioned in the travelers report from Thomas Coryate in the year 1608. The use of the fork gradually spread through the royal courts of Italy and France. But even there its use was very reserved. The French King Louis the 14th (1643-1715) ate in the traditional style with his fingers and a knife and he even forbid his family to use forks in his presence. Only very slowly did the fork manage to find its place at the table. Finally around the year1800 the fork became a common household item on the tables set in Europe.

Carving Fork and Serving Fork

In the ancient world the big 2 pronged fork was used in the kitchen to prepare meals. In the later middle ages the fork received a staring role out side of the kitchen. As “carving fork”; partnered with the associated knife, the fork became a very important and practical utensil for the ceremonial carving at the royal dining table. Carving the roast in front of all of the dinner guests was carried out by the “carving master” (this was an honorable official position).

The Dining Fork

The dining fork had become common place as an eating utensil at the dining table in the 19th century. However: “With the fork its an honor, with the spoon you get more”. This old saying gives insight into the skepticism that was held against the new table etiquette.

The original form of the two pronged serving fork began to change and the fork became more appropriate and functional for use with the mouth: the fork became smaller and the number of prongs grew to three,four or even five.