The Roman Spork

(An old facebook note that felt a bit out on a limb back there, deep under the surface of the idiot moment.)

Those of us who, due to organisational ineptness, have found themselves trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon, may have had occasion to reflect that, in cultures not blessed with chopsticks, the invention of noodles must have led swiftly and directly to the invention of the fork. In fact, the fork and the noodle may be another conundrum of chicken and egg-type proportions, locked forever in a dyadic tussle for primariness.

When we look at the evidence, however, an interesting gap appears. In a slide show clearly visible on the BBC’s website we can view a ‘Roman Swiss army knife’ from Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, the place where they drop china — a fascinating early silver spork, which includes what certainly looks like a tined device among its many metal limbs. However, popular history has it that the fork is a medieval utensil, as recounted on this site where we are told, ‘The first report of the fork as an eating utensil dates back to the 11th century, when the Venetian daughter of Byzantine Emperor Constantine Ducas used a small gold one.’ Of course, you may well exclaim that the Byzantines were, after all, the eastern wing of the Roman empire, and that the Fall of Rome in 476 was more symbolic than actual, suggesting that no building in Rome can rival the Aghia Sophia, completed in the middle of the 5th century. Continuity in law, architecture and learning, you may go on, should logically imply continuity in cutlery.

Could the fork, whether in a Swiss army knife/spork-like format, or some simpler form, have survived like so much else of Classical knowledge in Byzantium? And what of the noodle?

When I was in Western China, much was made of the Uighur noodle-maker’s art, whereby, flung into the air, twirled and stretched, plunged in boiling water and served with spicy meatballs, dough was transformed into something very like spaghetti. Again, popular accounts have it that pasta — perhaps pasta very like this — was brought back to Italy by Polo. But this is to ignore the Book of Roger…

King Roger II of Sicily commissioned a study of that island from Abu Abdullah Mohammed al Edrisi in 1154. The innocently-titled Book of R contains a small reference to the inhabitants of Trabia who made and exported a kind of pasta formed into long strands. As my source suggests: ‘Edrisi does not speculate about the origin of this “spaghetti,” but the fact that he considers it noteworthy, and that it was widely exported to a thriving market, may indicate that it was not known outside Sicily at that time.’

Unfortunately there is no mention of forks.

These two pieces of data, concerning Trabia’s early vermicelli, and the daughter of Constantine Ducas’s ‘small gold one’, would imply that the possibility of the fork extends back before the 11th century, but there is still a long handle of unaccounted years before our prongs of knowledge prod the admittedly undated Cambridge spork. We cannot yet raise a banner, formed from an ancient, sauce-spattered tablecloth, to rival the Roman boast ‘SPQR’ with the equally proud anagram ‘SPRQ’.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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