What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

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What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby caedmon » Fri Aug 28, 2020 6:12 pm

the professor himself wrote:Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates-


We know fork exist, at least in the quaint technological/cultural anachronism of Shire. But do we have any other references and/or descriptions?
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Udwin » Fri Aug 28, 2020 6:44 pm

"All hobbits, of course, can cook, for they begin to learn the art before their letters (which many never reach): but Sam was a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels, when there was a chance. He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallowpans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt." (LR IV:4)
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Manveruon » Sun Aug 30, 2020 8:24 pm

Seems to me, at a glance, that forks were probably a primarily Hobbitish innovation (being so concerned with eating, after all), and may have logically made their way out of the Shire into the Breelands, and perhaps even farther afield. But I would also be rather surprised if they occurred anywhere like Rohan, for example.
This is all just speculation, of course, as I don’t have any sources to back it up. I’d definitely be interested to see if anyone can dig up any further mentions of them outside of the context of hobbits and the Shire.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Udwin » Mon Aug 31, 2020 1:40 pm

I posted the Sam passage above by itself because it's really the ONLY description of individual cooking/eating gear.

-Bilbo's silver spoons bequeathed to Lobelia probably are ornamental and not for eating??

-The "bottles and dishes and knives and forks and glasses and plates and spoons" of the Unexpected Party survives into the 1960 Hobbit, so it is a safe bet that Hobbits are meant to have them. However, there's no mention of them after Bilbo's Birthday feast, when people come to clear away "the pavilions and the tables and the chairs, and the spoons and knives and bottles and plates, and the lanterns, and the flowering shrubs in boxes, and the crumbs and cracker-paper..." (LR I:1).
This absence suggests Bilbo's forks were for carving meat for the dwarves, and the regular hobbits at the Feast eat traditionally with knife and spoon only?

Bilbo's 'Hey Diddle-Diddle' song deals with eating gear, but only silver spoons and dishes, no fork.

In Beorn's hall, the serving sheep bring "trays with bowls and platters and [metal] knives and wooden spoons, which the dogs took and quickly laid on the trestle tables." (TH 7)
We aren't told what they had for dinner, but probably not much different from bread, honey, cream, and mead. No meat = no need for carving fork.

While forked tools have existed for millennia (Egypt, Bronze Age China, and Greco-Roman period in Europe), they were used in cooking and not eating. Spearing food and bringing it to the mouth only caught on in the last few 200 years or so...and even then it was an uphill fight.
I can easily see Bree, Rohan, Gondor, Dale, Dunland, etc having forks, but they're almost certainly just for moving meat from the pot and carving it up, not using them as we do today for eating.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Elleth » Mon Aug 31, 2020 2:27 pm

I'd wondered about that distinction. I've a dim memory of Frodo and Sam passing that fork and spoon back and forth among them as they ate late in Ithilien - ah, it's later in that passage:

Sam and his master sat just within the fern-brake and ate their stew from the pans, sharing the old fork and spoon. They allowed themselves half a piece of the Elvish waybread each. It seemed a feast.


Of course, since they're eating from the pans, one could easily call that a field improvisation rather than standard practice.

My guess is somewhat like Manv's - eating forks known among Hobbits, less common in Bree, and generally only cooking tools elsewhere.
But I've also a dim memory of now of coming across an eating fork in of all things an Anglo-Saxon context, I think in a Stephen Pollington book.
I can't recall the details, only that it struck me as surprising.

I'll have to look.
Anyone know what the Byzantines were doing c. the 600's-1100's? That might give us a good rule of thumb for Gondor, and possibly the northern Dunedain as well.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Udwin » Mon Aug 31, 2020 3:05 pm

Elleth wrote: My guess is somewhat like Manv's - eating forks known among Hobbits, less common in Bree, and generally only cooking tools elsewhere. But I've also a dim memory of now of coming across an eating fork in of all things an Anglo-Saxon context, I think in a Stephen Pollington book. I can't recall the details, only that it struck me as surprising. I'll have to look.
Anyone know what the Byzantines were doing c. the 600's-1100's? That might give us a good rule of thumb for Gondor, and possibly the northern Dunedain as well.


From what I've found, Byzantines did use table forks by the 300sCE, and their use entered south/eastern Europe via Persia and the Middle East in the 700-1100s period. The more hobbity areas of NW Europe would've actually been the last adopters.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Manveruon » Mon Aug 31, 2020 9:30 pm

Udwin wrote:
Elleth wrote: My guess is somewhat like Manv's - eating forks known among Hobbits, less common in Bree, and generally only cooking tools elsewhere. But I've also a dim memory of now of coming across an eating fork in of all things an Anglo-Saxon context, I think in a Stephen Pollington book. I can't recall the details, only that it struck me as surprising. I'll have to look.
Anyone know what the Byzantines were doing c. the 600's-1100's? That might give us a good rule of thumb for Gondor, and possibly the northern Dunedain as well.


From what I've found, Byzantines did use table forks by the 300sCE, and their use entered south/eastern Europe via Persia and the Middle East in the 700-1100s period. The more hobbity areas of NW Europe would've actually been the last adopters.


Isn't that ironic? It's funny to me that the Professor seemed to regard the Hobbits as especially quaint and rustic (because of course their ways were based on his idyllic romanticized views of the English countryside of his youth), when in reality most of their technology is leagues further advanced than what is described in other parts of MIddle-earth.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Elleth » Tue Sep 01, 2020 2:29 pm

Bilbo's silver spoons bequeathed to Lobelia probably are ornamental and not for eating??


Hunh. In the culture I grew up in (Southern Appalachian, borrowing in this case I think from Southern planter/high society) - real silver silverware was a "special occasion" thing but still very much used.
The classical pattern was you got them as a wedding gift as a young bride and used them for things like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner... and I think more often for higher society.
Not so common anymore, but it's still a thing practiced I think in some of the upper classes that have held on to some of the old formality.

I'd always assumed cottage English countryside was much the same, but could easily be wrong. Is it different up your way?

Anyhow, regarding forks.... hunh. I wonder if that "used for cooking not for eating" thing is tied somewhat to societal wealth? If you're mostly serving pottage and cutting the meat fine in the kitchen - nothing more than skewers really necessary. Once your culture is rich enough lots of people can put big hunks of meat on the plate again... different story?

Or am I just badly parroting your point, Udwin?
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Iodo » Wed Sep 02, 2020 5:58 am

Elleth wrote:In the culture I grew up in (Southern Appalachian, borrowing in this case I think from Southern planter/high society) - real silver silverware was a "special occasion" thing but still very much used.
The classical pattern was you got them as a wedding gift as a young bride and used them for things like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner... and I think more often for higher society.
Not so common anymore, but it's still a thing practiced I think in some of the upper classes that have held on to some of the old formality.

I'm not a high class family but that's how we do things, it's traditional, the silverware is inherited from my great grandmother, it comes out once a year at Christmas along with the fancy plates (also inherited) and as far as I know it has been used that way by the family for ages

Maybe the quote is intended to mean not for eating every day?
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Peter Remling » Wed Sep 02, 2020 3:14 pm

One of my brothers got the good silverware when my mother passed but, yes we only used it for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby BrianGrubbs » Thu Sep 03, 2020 2:55 pm

Another reference that comes to mind from the Hobbit, though it also would be talking of a cooking, not eating fork:

"The pale peaks of the mountains were coming nearer, moonlit spikes of rock sticking out of black shadows. Summer or not, it seemed very cold. He shut his eyes and wondered if he could hold on any longer. Then he imagined what would happen if he did not. He felt sick. The flight ended only just in time for him, just before his arms gave way. He loosed Dori's ankles with a gasp and fell onto the rough platform of an eagle's eyrie. There he lay without speaking, and his thoughts were a mixture of surprise at being saved from the fire, and fear lest he fell off that narrow place into the deep shadows on either side. He was feeling very queer indeed in his head by this time after the dreadful adventures of the last three days with next to nothing to eat, and he found himself saying aloud: "Now I know what a piece of bacon feels like when it is suddenly picked out of the pan on a fork and put back on the shelf!"

"No you don't!" he heard Dori answering, "because the bacon knows that it will get back in the pan sooner or later; and it is to be hoped we shan't. Also eagles aren't forks!""

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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Udwin » Thu Sep 03, 2020 3:42 pm

I don't know how I missed that passage! I guess that lets us know that forks aren't unknown to dwarves as well. And to my mind helps underline that hobbits use forks (for cooking bacon in a pan, at least).

Going back to Bilbo's spoons, I guess I knew about family 'good silver' that comes out for holidays, but I have some vague memory of seeing wooden cases with special, decorated silver spoons that are collected but not used. Also, if Bilbo's silver was used for special occasion feasting, I would expect he would've bequeathed "his good silver" or "silverware" to Lobelia but we are just told they were "silver spoons", which suggests that they were not using forks for eating, just cooking - possibly suggested by the bacon above.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Elleth » Mon Sep 14, 2020 3:37 pm

For what it's worth, I found that reference to Anglo-Saxon eating forks again. It's in Pollington's The Mead-Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England:

merf-anglo-saxon-fork.jpg
merf-anglo-saxon-fork.jpg (114.47 KiB) Viewed 392 times


The line drawing is rough, but the faces and knotting do suggests an Anglo-Saxon art style and hence domestic manufacture.
And less than 6" overall length for the "comparable find" does suggest I think an eating rather than a cooking tool.

... but I've no idea how much of that find is certain, and less how generally applicable it is to the population at large.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Eofor » Tue Sep 15, 2020 11:24 am

Elleth wrote:For what it's worth, I found that reference to Anglo-Saxon eating forks again. It's in Pollington's The Mead-Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England:

The line drawing is rough, but the faces and knotting do suggests an Anglo-Saxon art style and hence domestic manufacture.
And less than 6" overall length for the "comparable find" does suggest I think an eating rather than a cooking tool.

... but I've no idea how much of that find is certain, and less how generally applicable it is to the population at large.


A fantastic book. The fork pictured was part of the Sevington hoard discovered in 1834 and the given the rest of the find was Anglo Saxon coins it seems likely to have been Saxon and not viking treasure.
Apart from the examples given by Pollington I'm only aware of one other example found at Low Field in Salisbury. It is dated to 5th-6thC so it's definitely pre viking and is described as an 15.1cm iron fork with split bone handle and one of two prongs remaining.

Looking at it from a historical perspective the absence of finds could be explained in one of two ways, either they were exceptionally rare or they weren't considered items suitable for inclusion as grave goods. Given the long list of household items that people were buried with I strongly suspect the former.
A supporting argument (although it is viking) comes from the goods buried in the Oseberg ship which includes just about every domestic item you could think of but no forks The list of goods is HUGE and can be found in full at the link at the end but I've listed all the kitchen items here.


3 Iron pots
1 Pot stand
Several stirring sticks and wooden spoons
5 Ladles
1 Frying pan
1 Approx. 2 m long trough
1 Earthenware basin
3 Small troughs
7 Wooden bowls
4 Wooden platters
10 Ordinary buckets (one containing blueberries)
2 Work axes
3 Knives
1 quern-stone


https://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us ... -grave.pdf
Last edited by Eofor on Wed Sep 23, 2020 7:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What do we know of Eating Forks in Middle Earth?

Postby Elleth » Tue Sep 15, 2020 12:06 pm

Cool - thank you!

You're right about the Pollington book: I've been getting his books as I could over the last couple years, and I have to say of all of them, that's the "if you can only have one..." volume.

Customs, food lore, artifacts... a little bit of everything!
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