The 16th century was an age of exploration in all senses of the term, a period when colossal advances in art, science, and geography reshaped Europeans’ understanding of the world. In the early 1500s, as explorers probed the New World, some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance were being created, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512. As the century was ending, the plays of Shakespeare were exploring the human condition, while in Padua, a young professor named Galileo Galilei began to open up the secrets of the solar system.
At first, Hamlet and the planets seem far removed from table manners. But social historians see close links between the Renaissance outlook and the rapid development of codes of behavior at the table. In her 1954 book The Art of Eating, the American writer M. F. K. Fisher pinpoints a year when the dinners of the European nobility started to become rather more refined affairs—1533, the year of the wedding between the 14-year-old Catherine de’ Medici (the niece of Pope Clement VII) and the future French king Henry II of France.
Catherine was raised in Florence, the epicenter of the growing cult of refined eating habits. Her arrival in France, Fisher writes, shocked the Italian noblewoman: “Paris seemed harsh and boorish to the lonesome Florentines. They moped for the gay lightness of their own banquet-halls... Here in Paris many people still laughed jeeringly at the “those Italian neatnesses called forks” and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat from their knife-ends or their greasy fingers.” Catherine was determined to change such customs, which is why her marriage in that year, Fisher writes, “changed the table manners of Europe.”