The Byzantine Princess and the Fork

A slide showing Emperor Basil II Porphyrogenitos. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

When I was growing up, I heard many times a tale of Greeks, from Classical times to reminiscences shared with me by my grandparents and their generation. One reoccurring set of stories was how Byzantine Empire refugees transmitted culture to the West. We gave the ‘light’ to the West, I was told repeatedly. As Greeks and other peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Balkans were escaping from Ottoman domination they brought new information, materials and skills to Europe and so, I was told, helped to launch the Renaissance. I was in college before I found out such claims really bothered my professors.

Academic objections aside, certainly some cultural contributions large as well as small were brought by Greeks and others who moved from east to west. One tale I was repeatedly told as a child was that Greeks had brought the fork to Europe. That before introduction took place, I was told, Europeans ate with their fingers. While a complicated tale it in fact seems to be true, in that, various Greeks are specifically named as the individual who first brought the fork to Western Europe.

Some confusion exists since the introduction of this utensil, according to available information, did not happen once but at least three and perhaps even four times. Strikingly, at its core this tale centers on not one but three Byzantine princesses. I will present these three women and the tale surrounding them chronologically as this helps clarify the published accounts of who brought what, where and when.

The first princess was Maria Argyropoulina (died 1007) the granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor Romanos II and niece of the Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII. After this point much is in dispute. All sources agree that Maria was married to Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro II Orseolo in 1004. But exactly where the couple married is something of a point of contention. Some accounts report that the couple was married in the Iconomium palace in Constantinople with full imperial pageantry with the couple being crowned with golden diadems by Basil II, himself.

In Origins of the Common Fork by Chad Ward, we encounter another version of events: “Imagine the astonishment then when in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina…showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks, and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. She was roundly condemned by the local clergy for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, ‘God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore, it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating (leitesculinaria.com).”

The Catholic saint Peter Damian, is credited with witnessing the princess dine, “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 (slate.com).”

When Argyropoulina (along with her husband and small son) died of the plague two years later, Damian wrote again, “with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. Nor did she deign 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 to her mouth. . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither (leitesculinaria.com).”

Next we learn of Theodora Anna Doukaina (1058–1083) the daughter of Byzantine emperor Constantine X Dukas and his second wife Eudokia Makrembolitissa. Theodora became the wife of Domenico Selvo, Doge of Venice from 1075 until her death in 1083.

Theodora was married to Domenico Selvo in Constantinople (1075) with full Imperial pageantry, and crowned with the Imperial diadem by her brother, Michael VII Doukas. Theodora brought a large Greek retinue to Venice, and rendered herself extremely unpopular because of her aristocratic bearing and haughty manner. What was then perceived as her Byzantine extravagance included the use of a fork, finger bowls, napkins, and sconce candles. As Bridget Ann Henisch, notes in her book Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society that Theodora “died of a degenerative illness, which was seen by the Venetians as a divine judgment for her ‘immoderate’ lifestyle. There is an account of her lavish manners written by none other than St. Peter Damian, who ended his description of Theodora by alleging that her ‘body, after her excessive delicacy, entirely rotted away (Pennsylvania State University, 1976).”

But Peter Damian could never have written anything about the marriage of Theodora and Domenico: their marriage took place in 1075 and Peter died in 1072. Clearly, there is some ongoing confusion between Theodora Maria Argyropoulina and Theodora Anna Doukaina. Obviously the very same stories by Damian have been attributed to Maria Argyropoulaina and Giovanni Orseolo who were married in Constantinople in 1005 or 1006. Both died in 1007 when a plague swept through the city-state. Damian was born between 995 and 1007, at most, he would have been, 11 years old when Maria, Giovanni, and their son arrived in Venice.

Our next Byzantine princess is Theophano Skleraina (955/960-991) the niece of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (c. 925-976). Theophano was an Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire by marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, and then regent of the Holy Roman Empire during the minority of her son from 983 until her death.

“She is credited with introducing the fork to Western Europe (though some sources credit another Byzantine princess with this, Maria Argyropoulaina who married the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004). Theophano’s arrival on the Rhine created quite a stir. “Dressed in silks, she insisted on bathing daily, was quite literate, and most upsetting of all, she used a fork. Chronographers mention the astonishment she caused when she “used a golden double prong to bring food to her mouth” instead of using her hands as was the norm. Theophano was also criticized for her decadence, which manifested in her bathing once a day and introducing luxurious garments and jewelry into Germany (mybyzantine.wordpress.com).”

The last oft-repeated tale concerning the fork occurred in 1533, when Italian Catherine de Medici married Henri II, the soon-to-be king of France. She traveled to her wedding with her Italian silver forks collection. From this point onward forks gradually gained popularity among the royal European families–though later in the 16th century, there was at least one French satirist who mocked Henri III, a successor of Henri II, and his associates, for opting to use forks over fingers for eating meat.

 

A point I have not raised here is that medieval accounts also note that while the European royals were eating with their hands, and that believing their health would be adversely effected otherwise; they never washed them. With all this being said it seems more than likely that the fork was introduced from the Byzantine east to the European west. I often wonder which of these tales, told to me so long ago by my family and their friends are in fact true historical events that Western scholars still insist never occurred.

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