Saturday, July 23, 2005

Always seemed a perfect source for contagion.

June 11, 2005

Put your sweet lips . . .
A simple gesture that can express love and reverence — or insult and betrayal. A kiss, Keith Thomas discovers, is never just a kiss

Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other's saliva and dirt! — Tsonga people of southern Africa on the European practice of kissing, 1927

In what must still be the longest single work devoted to the kiss — Opus Polyhistoricum . . . de Osculis — the German polymath Martin von Kempe (1642-83) assembled 1,040 closely packed pages of excerpts from classical, biblical, legal, medical and other learned sources to form a sort of encyclopaedia of kissing. He listed more than 20 types of kiss. These included the kiss of veneration, the kiss of peace, the kisses bestowed by Christians on images and relics, and by pagans on idols, the kissing of the Pope’s foot, the kiss bestowed by superiors on inferiors, the kiss used in academic degree ceremonies, the lovers’ kiss, the lustful and adulterous kiss, the kiss exchanged by couples sealing their marriage vows, the kiss of reconciliation, the kiss carrying contagion, the hypocritical kiss and the kiss of Judas.

It would not be difficult to prolong von Kempe’s list ad infinitum. For kisses take so many different forms. A kiss can be given in private or in public, by men to men, men to women, women to women, adults to children or children to each other. They can be unilateral or reciprocated. They can be on the lips, on the cheek or on any other part of the body. They can be blown in the air. A kiss can express deference, obedience, respect, agreement, reverence, adoration, friendliness, affection, tenderness, love, superiority, inferiority, even insult. There is no such thing as a straightforward kiss.

The conventions governing the use of the kiss as a gesture of greeting or farewell have, for most historical periods, been established only in the most fragmentary outline, and then usually only for the upper classes of society. What sort of gestures, if any, were exchanged on meeting and parting by two 12th-century serfs? When, if at all, did an 18th-century collier’s wife kiss her friends? These are not questions to which it is yet possible to give a confident answer.

But the kiss does have a history. While psychologists and psychoanalysts tend to write as if kissing has a universal and unchanging meaning (for Freud, the erotic kiss is an attempted return to the security of the mother’s breast), it is far from a universal practice. It seems to have played a less conspicuous part in either the ritual or the erotic life of most Asiatic, Polynesian or sub-Saharan societies, while in the West the norms and conventions governing its employment have, from the beginning, been constantly evolving.

One could attempt to summarise this evolution by saying that the use of the kiss as a ceremonial means of expressing and cementing social, personal and political relationships has, during the past 800 years, tended to diminish, whereas its erotic significance has been increasingly emphasised.

Since the days of the early church, Christians had exchanged a holy kiss of peace as a symbol of their unity in Christ. But in due course the male and female members of the congregation were segregated so as to avoid kissing between the sexes and, from the 13th century onwards, the members of the congregation began to kiss the osculatorium or pax-board rather than each other. In the 16th century Protestants omitted the kiss altogether.

Other forms of ceremonial kissing also disappeared. At some point in the late medieval or early modern periods (14th to 18th centuries), the handshake, oath or written document superseded the kiss as the accepted symbols of reconciliation. In England, at least, kissing between males was unusual, other than within the family or in courtly ceremony. In his Troilus and Criseyde (late 1380s), Chaucer notably minimised the degree of physical contact between men which he found in the Italian source for his story. When Thomas Coryate, an experienced courtier, visited Venice in 1608, he thought it “an extraordinary custom” that two male acquaintances would “give a mututal kiss when they depart from each other, by kissing one another’s cheek: a custom, that I never saw before, nor heard of, nor read of in any history”.

Meanwhile, the erotic meaning of the kiss became increasingly central. In 1649 an English observer could write that the kiss was used “in salutation, valediction, reconciliation . . . congratulation, approbation, adulation, subjection, confederation, but more especially and naturally in token of love”. The mouth became more welcoming with the advent of more effective dentistry — which did something to diminish halitosis and produce gleaming white teeth — and the sexual connotations of the kiss became more apparent and its meaning more ambiguous. Eventually the ambiguity proved too much; and, for social and ritual purposes, the meeting of lips had to be replaced by other words and actions, less susceptible to misinterpretation. The English social kiss between men and women had been on the lips and therefore disappeared, whereas the French kiss on the cheeks was less blatantly erotic and accordingly proved more enduring.

Any form of kissing between men similarly became objectionable once the idea of homosexuality had been clearly formulated. In 1626 the writer William Vaughan deplored the “unnatural kiss of man with man, a minion-kiss, such as Jupiter used to Ganymede his cup-bearer”. Under the later Stuarts, French influence on courtly manners created a temporary fashion for foppish young men to kiss each other on the cheek, but in the 18th century men seen kissing were likely to be accused of sodomy.

Affectionate kissing and touching between women friends and acquaintances lasted much longer, because the notion of lesbian love was slower to take root than was that of male homosexual desire. Even so, physical tokens of affection between women were thought more seemly if not exchanged in company or in the presence of men.


This interpretation, according to which the sexual meaning of a kiss gradually drove out all other meanings, is open to two obvious objections. First, it glosses over the fact that the kiss had always had an erotic connotation. In ancient times as now, the lips were an erogenous zone, whatever cultural conventions may have implied. There were always problems about using so intimate an act for the purposes of public ritual — that was why the early Fathers were worried about the kiss of peace — and there was always scepticism and distrust of the Neoplatonic notion that kisses could unite souls without awaking a desire for the union of bodies.

Medieval literature abounds in equivocal kisses, with lovers and lechers exploiting the social and religious conventions of the day to advance their own particular sexual agendas. The fine line separating social from sexual kissing caused much social anxiety and provided rich possibilities for drama, both comic and tragic. An English traveller in the 1770s to Scotland, where French-style social kissing was practised, remarked that “it very seldom happens that the salute is a voluntary one, and it frequently is the cause of disgust and embarrassment to the fair sex”.

This inherent potential for misunderstanding is what distinguishes the history of the kiss from that of most other gestures. It might be argued that it is a matter of indifference whether a hostess greets her guests by kissing them on the mouth, as in Tudor England; by shaking hands, as in mid-20th-century Britain; or by rubbing noses, as in Polynesia. They are all ways of making strangers welcome; and, so long as everyone concerned understands the conventions, it might seem of no consequence which one is employed. But what distinguishes the kiss from so many other multi-purpose gestures is that its sexual nature has always lent a potential ambiguity to its meaning.

The second objection to the notion that the ritual kiss was subverted by the erotic kiss is that it implies that the trend was all in the same direction. In fact, there were periods when the movement was the other way. The early Middle Ages had seen the rise of the kiss, as it came to occupy an unprecedently central position in a wide range of secular and ecclesiastical rituals. The Romans, by contrast, did not employ even the social kiss until the period of the Empire, and then only among the aristocracy.

The social kiss between men seems to have fluctuated according to fashion. The habit among elegant young males at the later Stuart courts of kissing each other has already been mentioned. “Sir, you kiss pleasingly,” says one of them in an early-eighteenth-century play, “I love to kiss a man, in Paris we kiss nothing else.” In the trenches of the First World War, the imminent threat of death could lead to a suspension of normal codes of behaviour and restore the male kiss as a non-sexual symbol of intimacy, while in the late 20th century, it has become commonplace for men on the football field to exchange kisses at moments of triumph.

These developments are part of an altogether larger relaxation of bodily inhibitions which has occurred in the West since the 1960s. The social kiss and hug have returned, much to the embarrassment of middle-aged Britons, who have grown up accustomed to a far greater degree of bodily distance.

The subject also has a medical dimension. For the attitude to kissing can change when breath and saliva are regarded as potential instruments of infection. The Roman Emperor Tiberius (AD14-37) issued a decree banning kissing, because it was believed to be responsible for the spread of an unpleasant fungoid disease called mentagra, which disfigured the faces and bodies of Roman nobles.

Not that the avoidance of bodily contact was always so rational. Some bodily habits, which had been happily tolerated in one age, became wholly unacceptable in another. No one has ever exceeded the Roman epigrammatist Martial (late 1st century AD) in evoking the nauseous experience of having to kiss lips and faces covered with dirt, snot, ulcers and scabs. Thereafter there were many such complaints. The social and physical squeamishness of 18th-century doctors prevented them from adopting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as a respectable medical practice, even though they were aware of its life-saving potentialities. In the same century, authorities on politeness condemned the practice of those who “put their faces so close to yours as to offend you with their breath” as a “horrid and disgustful habit”. When aristocratic Romans of the imperial age took up the practice of kissing friends and clients, they perfumed their breath with myrrh. How far, one wonders, have modern dentistry and breath-sweeteners been a precondition of the return of the social kiss in modern times?

Sir Keith Thomas is the author of Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin).

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd

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