The fork was around long before it staked out its place on the dining table. The Egyptians used large forks for cooking; and the word “fork” derives from Latin “furca,” meaning “pitchfork.” As a dining utensil, however, the fork is believed to have originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, where it was in common use by the 4th century. By the 10th century, the fork had become popular in Turkey and the Middle East, spreading thereafter to southern Europe by the second millennium.
The earliest forks had only two widely spaced tines, which were straight, not curved slightly upward as they are today. And their handles tended to be about four inches long and thin, with a circumference about half that of a modern-day drinking straw.
To a large extent, the popularity of forks in the West came literally and figuratively at the hands of two Byzantine princesses who married into Western aristocracy: Theophano, who married Holy Roman Emperor (967-983) and Germany’s King Otto II in 972 C.E.; and Maria Argyropoulaina, who wed the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004. By the end of the 11th century, the table fork had become known in Italy amongst the wealthier classes. By the 14th century, the fork was clearly on its way towards being an accepted dining utensil in Italy. And its widespread acceptance in Italy remained steady, eventually becoming a typical household utensil by the 16th century, some 500 years after its introduction. In 1533, at age 14, Catherine de’ Medici and her entourage introduced the fork to the French when she left Italy for France to marry the future King Henry II. During the Italian Renaissance, each guest would arrive with his own fork and spoon in a decorative box called a “cadena,” and Catherine and her court took that custom along with them to France. It was not uncommon for royals and nobles to have forks made of solid gold or silver, though iron and pewter, for example, were used for the forks of the less privileged.
By the 16th century, the fork had become a part of Italian etiquette, and Spain, Portugal, and France followed suit (though it is widely believed that the Infanta Beatrice of Portugal introduced the fork to her country in the middle of the 15th century). Thomas Coryate is credited with introducing forks to England in 1608 after seeing them in use in Italy during his travels; the initial English reaction was consistent with that of most of Europe—that forks were effeminate and pretentious. In much of northern Europe especially, where most eating was done with the hand or with the aid of a spoon when necessary, the fork was viewed as a decadent, Italian affectation. By the 18th century, however, most of Europe used the fork.
The fork design popular today, with its four, slightly curved tines, was developed in France at the end of the 17th century and in Germany in the middle of the 18th century. It was not until the 19th century—almost 1500 years after it was first popularized in Byzantium—that the fork would become a household item in North America.