Revulsion, Morality and the Fork
On the History of Table Manners and Culture.
Saturday morning at the supermarket, food department, waiting at the cheese counter; nothing unusual. On the top of the counter a platter with blue cheese for tasting. I feel my hand being drawn to the morsels of cheese, my thumb and forefinger opening pincer-like, ready to grasp; an automatic reflex, so to speak.
Now my eye catches the little cup next to the platter, filled with toothpicks. Do I have to use them? Next to it a second cup for the used toothpicks. Basically it would be no problem to fish out a morsel of cheese by hand without touching the others; so why so complicated? My hand keeps moving upwards. Oh, but these toothpicks, and then there’s that man behind the counter! He’s wearing gloves, another mute reminder. So do I use the toothpicks after all? But which ones? The idea of mistaking the two cups raises a tinge of disgust. And anyhow, what are these spittled things doing next to the fresh cheese? Unsavoury thoughts rush through my mind. But time’s running short, the shop assistant is about to turn to me; no way my hand could reach the cheese in time.
End of the manoeuvre in the nick of time. My hand remains below, the cheese untouched. Still, the question remains how can a toothpick cause such a guilty conscience? Whence the power of such trivial objects over human behaviour? And why does this behaviour trigger such deeply rooted and almost uncontrollable reflexes as revulsion and reluctance?
God and the Fork
Norbert Elias has the answer. Without specifically mentioning toothpicks, the German sociologist, who died in 1990, developed an comprehensive theory of society in the 1930s based on our relationship with cutlery and tableware, including, amongst other things, the fact that in modern Western civilization people use handkerchiefs to blow their nose instead of tablecloths as once was common. Elias recognized in these changing norms and practices a groundbreaking cultural and social development, which he referred to as the “Civilizing Process” which is also the title of his study. One of his observations was that modernizing societies develop ever more refined manners. However, there is more to it than mere social etiquette. Take, for example, the case of the fork. Its introduction was not the result of medieval European noblemen and women visiting a course on good manners, it was the hallmark of what Elias refers to as the changing “spirit” of an entire age and culture in the Western world.
So, we’re down to the fork and the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century the doge of Venice married a Byzantine princess and, since she was accustomed to them from back home, she brought with her to the Venetian court “small golden forks with two tines”, as one chronicler put it. It turned into a scandal. The church protested, maintaining that God had given human beings fingers for touching the gifts of the lands he had provided. When, shortly afterwards, the princess fell seriously ill people saw it as a heavenly punishment for her sins. It took a while before the use of forks became accepted in Italy, at least in the upper echelons of society, but even then the forks were only used to pick food from the common dish in the middle of the table. Starting in the sixteenth century, the new implement spread northwards, first to France, then to Germany and England. “God save me from these little forks”, Martin Luther exclaimed in 1518. An English traveller who had encountered forks in Italy in 1608 received nothing but scorn and derision when he recommended the use of them back home.
Revulsion is Learnable
One can only amaze at the early resistance against the use of forks. On the other hand, and this is the more insightful approach, just think of the horror nowadays at the thought of having to use nothing but your bare hands to consume your food. “What we today consider the most natural thing in the world”, writes Elias, “first had to be laboriously acquired, moulded and learnt by society.” This “moulding” involves a strong sense of disgust, which occurs spontaneously and seemingly naturally as soon as a common standard is breached. However, this sense, or feeling, is actually not intrinsic, it evolved gradually in conjunction with the sense of decorum, as its counterpart, so to speak. Revulsion is not an instinct; it is a cultural product, like the use of knives and forks.
So let’s return to the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the early modern period when the norms and manners as we know them today gradually began to evolve. In a French book on good manners of 1555 we read that “scratching your head while sitting at table and searching your neck and back for lice, fleas and other vermin and killing them in the presence of others”, is inappropriate. Another conduct book states that belching and throwing up at table should be avoided. Furthermore, don’t throw gnawed bones back into the common dish; chewed food is to be retained in the mouth; you do not spit out pips, you extract them with your fingers; don’t use your serviette to blow or nose or clean your teeth, etc.
These habits would not have needed banning, if they had not been commonplace. If the members of nobility, to whom these “table manners” were addressed, had intrinsically felt disgust at the thought of such behaviour, such conduct books would never have been written. But, according to Norbert Elias, the “civilizing process” goes much deeper than that: it refers to a kind of cultural-historical evolution in the course of which the social rules of behaviour became ever more sophisticated as societies grow increasingly complex and closely meshed. The fork more than just a tool, it also reflects the “people’s relations with each other”, as Elias notes. With it you create distance to your food, to your neighbour, and last but not least to yourself.
Restraint Becomes Self-restraint
The “civilizing process” also refers to the growing restraint of emotions. Elias speaks of an “advance of the threshold of shame and embarrassment” and the “increasing drive to differentiate and regulate the entire psychological apparatus”. A closer look at the growing range of table manners and utensils bears evidence to this. Simple forks are not enough; no, we have specials ones for escargots and lobsters. Normal table knives are complemented by butter knives, fish knives, steak knives and cheese knives. We use soup spoons, dessert spoons, coffee spoons, even espresso spoons.
Do we use these utensils to conform to the code of conduct, or do they use us to make us behave properly? Norbert Elias also explains how novel codes of conduct are internalized, how external restraints become remoulded as self-restraints which we as individuals “cannot resist even if common sense tells us we should”.
This also explains why the individual shies away from the toothpick on the cheese counter. The little piece of wood is an embodiment of his self-restraint.