Created | Updated Apr 12, 2006
In medieval Saxon times, as Dorothy Hartley mentions in her book Food in England, diners brought their own cutlery to meals. Gentlemen and ladies had a different way of carrying these utensils. The men kept their spoon, knife and 'spike' in a kind of pouch. From an illustration in the book, the pouch appears to be leather, quite long and with a flap at the top - somewhat similar to a wallet you could keep pens or cigars in these days. The cup was carried separately. The cases were called 'nefs' and were elaborately decorative. They were a favourite present for young people as they came of an age to dine with adults. The book's illustration of the lady's 'nef' suggests a type of box which contained the cup as well as the knives and spoons. Each person also had their own linen napkin. These were used to to dry their cutlery after the utensils had been washed - using a bowl of water that had been passed around the table.
Dining rules of the time included not biting into bread (see International Dining Etiquette) as it was deemed as being rude to the people at the lower tables who received the leftovers. This practice would suggest that at the time there was some awareness of the importance of hygiene.
A Long History
Knives have been in use for thousands of years, while forks are a more recent invention. Until the 17th Century it was common practice to impale food on the point of a knife before transferring it into the mouth, a risky business with the dagger-type blades of those times. Later it became trendy for a second knife to be used at the table in order to hold the food steady while the other knife cut it. That led to the development of the fork, originally made with just two straight tines and only seen in the poshest of places. As late as the 1840s, American diners were still coping with knives alone, though by then table knives usually had a rounded top and only one sharp edge.
Fish and Cheese Knives
Until the invention of stainless steel about 80 years ago, knife blades were commonly made from carbon steel and its taste was said to spoil the delicate flavour of fish. The inventive Victorians solved the problem with special fish knives fashioned from silver or silver plate. As fish doesn't need much carving, the blades of the fish knives were left unsharpened and given a decorative edge. Double-pointed cheese knives were developed around the same time and soon the well-set table demanded a complicated array of cutlery. We've loosened up since then but a quick check around your local kitchenware store will reveal fish knives are still being made, though stainless steel has ousted the silver plate.
Few shops bother to stock silver-plated cutlery; it seems we no longer have the time or inclination to polish the stuff. Stainless steel is durable and since items are often designed and cast in one piece, they can go through the dishwasher with no problems. The cheapest knives and forks are often uncomfortable to hold. Quality costs - you can expect to pay upwards of US$100 for a six-place setting of a reputable brand. The setting comprises a dinner-size knife, a bread-and-butter knife, a dinner fork, dessert spoon and fork, a soup spoon and a teaspoon - all you need to dine in style, with extra pieces available if required. Chain stores stock smaller sets at smaller prices but you can't usually buy replacement pieces or matching fish knives, steak knives, etc.
Implements with the bowl of a spoon, the tines of a fork and the cutting edge of a knife (known commercially as 'le fork' or 'splayds') are a nifty idea. A nicely-boxed set of eight costs about US$20 and they're ideal for desserts. Also freely available are sporks - a cross between a spoon and a fork.
For formal occasions, the old rules for laying a table still stand: forks on the left, knives (with blades pointing inwards) and spoons on the right. When eating you should start with the implements on the outside and work your way in.
The term cutlery should only refer to knives and cutting implements. Forks and spoons are more properly known as flatware. You knew that, of course.
A cutler makes more than just knives. For example, Wilkinson sword cutlers, by appointment to Her Majesty, are makers of many splendid sharp things.