Manners by the Forkful


Dear A.J.,

My 11-year-old son has the table manners of a carny. For instance, he refuses to hold a fork even remotely properly. How can I reform him? Or should I just throw in the napkin? - Ellen, St. Paul


My advice? You should be happy your son uses a fork at all. When first introduced to Western Europe in the 1500s, the fork was seen as a pretentious, high-tech affectation, a 16th-century version of Google Glass. Hands were the utensils of choice.

As one fork hater wrote, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore, it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.”

Mind you, there was at least some etiquette to this hand-to-mouth existence. Your proper medieval eater used three fingers instead of grabbing the mutton with the whole hand. And he or she didn’t linger. As one manual from 1480 put it, “Don’t keep the hand too long feeling about in the dish.”

And, Ellen, you shouldn’t just be thankful for forks. Be grateful you and your son have your own place settings. In centuries past, communal dishes, communal soup bowls, and communal cups were commonplace. It just wasn’t a good time to be a germaphobe. As 18th-century Scottish author Tobias Smollett notes, the English custom was to drink from a tankard in which “a dozen of filthy mouths have slabbered.”

The French custom of using individual water glasses wasn’t much better, Smollett complained. He was appalled by how the French “spit and squirt and spew the flighty scourings of their gums, under the eyes of each other. I know a lover cured of his passion by seeing this nasty cascade discharged from the mouth of his mistress.”

As for napkins, they were often replaced by coats, hats, and tablecloths.

Your son would probably also be happy to know that the rules for burping and farting were minimal back then. The 13th-century etiquette guide The Book of the Civilized Man advises: “If you wish to belch, remember to look up to the ceiling.”

And Erasmus, a 15th-century Emily Post, recommended this suave trick for mealtime flatulence: “Let a cough hide the sound.”

Others said you shouldn’t even bother with the subterfuge. According to Who Cut the Cheese?, the definitive cultural history of farting, Roman emperor Claudius “planned an edict to legitimize the breaking of wind at table, either silently or noisily, after hearing about a man who was so modest that he endangered his health by an attempt to restrain himself.”

That’s not to mention those who relieved themselves right at the table. Historian Lucy Worsley writes about how 18th-century French author La Rochefoucauld found the British practice of keeping chamber pots in the dining room “most indecent.”

As long as your son keeps his pants on at the table, I say ignore the fork faux pas.

This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.