[Paleopsych] The Times: Put your sweet lips...
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Tue Jul 26 19:45:17 UTC 2005
Put your sweet lips...
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,592-1647622,00.html et seq.
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
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
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?
Edited extract from the afterword to The Kiss in History, edited by
Karen Harvey (Manchester University Press, £15.99, offer £12.79 plus
£2.25 p&p, call 0870 1608080)
Sir Keith Thomas is the author of Religion and the Decline of Magic
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