The Kiss and its History/Chapter 5

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1982181The Kiss and its History — Chapter V. The Kiss of RespectWilliam Frederick HarveyKristoffer Nyrop



Les rois des nations, devant toi prosternés,
De tes pieds baisent la poussière.


The kings of the Gentiles, prostrate before thee, kiss the dust of thy feet.



Margaret of Scotland, who was betrothed to Charles the Seventh's son, the Dauphin Louis (afterwards Louis XI.), one day walked through a hall where Alain Chartier was sitting asleep in a chair. On perceiving the sleeping poet, she went up to him and kissed him on the lips. Many of her suite were astonished at this, "for nature had, so far as Chartier was concerned, suffered a beautiful and rich mind to take up its abode in an ugly body." The princess replied that they were not to marvel at what she had done, for it was not the man she had kissed, but the mouth from which so many golden words had proceeded. Margaret's kiss was therefore an expression of the respect she had for the poet, and the admiration and regard inspired by his poetical genius. A little further back in the Middle Ages we meet with another striking instance of a kiss as expressive of veneration; but this kiss is of a more humble nature. We are told that, when the Emperor Otto I. had taken leave of his pious mother in the church attached to a monastery, the latter followed him with her eyes as long as she could, and then returned to the church and kissed the place whereon his feet had stood.

The kiss of veneration is of ancient origin; from the remotest times we find it applied to all that is holy, noble, and worshipful—to the gods, their statues, temples, and altars, as well as to kings and emperors; out of reverence, people even kissed the ground, and both sun and moon were greeted with kisses.

In the first book of Kings God says to Elijah: "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him" (xix. 18).

In the thirty-first chapter of Job, Job extols his own piety: "If I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness; and my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand" (26, 27). Here, undoubtedly, allusion is made to the kissing of hands whereby the heathen were wont to salute the heavenly bodies.

When the prophet Hosea laments over the idolatry of the children of Israel, he says that they make molten images of calves and kiss them.

Even in remote classical times a similar homage was paid to the gods; people kissed the hands, knees, and feet, even the mouths, of their idols. Cicero informs us, in one of his speeches against Verres, that the lips and beard of the famous statue of Hercules at Agrigentum were worn away by the kisses of devotees.

Bayle tells us, in reference to this passage, that a physician was asked one day why it was that a bronze face could, in this manner, be worn away through being kissed, whereas, on the other hand, kisses did not leave the slightest trace on the countenance of the most fashionable courtesan. His answer was that the reason, he supposed, was that statues were kissed for centuries, but that the woman in question was only kissed for a very few years, viz., so long as her beauty lasted. This explanation was, however, considered unsatisfactory, and the physician's attention was called to the fact that soft flesh must be far sooner worn away than hard bronze; besides, lover's kisses being considerably more violent than those of mere respect. The physician then urged another reason, viz., that which kisses wear away from bronze lips is lost for ever, but that which is worn away from living lips is immediately replaced by renewal of tissue in the body.

The kiss of veneration came to play a very important part in Christian society. St Luke the Evangelist tells us that when Christ sat at meat in the Pharisee's house there came a woman who had been a great sinner, bringing with her a vase of ointment. "And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment" (vii. 38). When the Pharisee wondered at His having allowed such a woman to touch Him, He rebuked him by the parable of the two debtors, and added, "Thou gavest me no kiss, but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint, but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment."

Again in the Psalms, "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him."

C. H. Spurgeon used these lines as the text of a sermon he preached in the "Music Hall," London, on the 3rd of July 1859, in which he did his utmost to make his congregation understand what is meant by saying we are to "kiss Christ.""The kiss," says he, "is a mark of worship; to kiss Christ is at the same time to recognise Him as God, and to pay Him divine worship. The kiss is a mark of homage and subjection; we ought likewise to acknowledge Christ as our King, and promise to follow blindly His behests. The kiss is a sign of reconciliation; we ought to show that we are reconciled with God. Lastly, the kiss is the greatest of all tokens of love; to kiss Christ is therefore only a figurative way of expressing to love Him with deep and fervent love."[1]

As the woman that was a sinner showed her reverence for Christ by kissing His feet, so all saintly men and women henceforward were honoured in a like manner. They were saluted humbly by kisses on their hands or feet, and the legend goes that he who kissed the hand of St Dominic never afterwards committed sin. In many countries, more especially in Southern Italy, kissing the hands of the priest is still customary.

The kiss reverential was extended to everything that was holy, or had been consecrated to sacred purposes.

People kissed the Cross with the image of the Crucified, and such kissing of the Cross is always regarded as a particularly holy act. In many countries it is required, on taking an oath, as the highest asseveration that the witness is speaking the truth, and as a last act of charity, the image of the Redeemer is handed to the dying or death-condemned to be kissed. Kissing the Cross brings blessing and happiness. In the south of France people used formerly, in moments of difficulty or danger, when no Cross was at hand, to kiss their thumbs laid in the form of a cross. When devout Catholics salute the Pope by humbly kissing his slipper, they are fond of explaining away this greeting. They say that it is not to be taken as any personal homage paid to the Pope; the kiss having nothing to do with his slipper, but the cross which is embroidered on it. Therefore Christ it is to whom they are prostrating themselves. This idea, however, is undoubtedly a later fancy; the kiss on the slipper ought, I take it, more correctly to be considered as humble homage to the Pope as primate of the Church, and such, therefore, must be the view the Pope himself holds, since he has, times without number, exempted cardinals and other persons of high rank from kissing his slipper. The number of kings and ambassadors who, in the course of time, have refused to submit to this ceremony, have undoubtedly regarded it as a humiliation; and popular conception bears this out thoroughly. To "kiss the slipper" has become in many languages synonymous with a low and unworthy cringing. In the old German war-song against Charles V., we find:

Ah, think the whole imperial race
Through Popery fell in sore disgrace
And German might was riven.
Will you for all their knavery
To slipper-kiss be given?

W. F. H.

People kiss the image of Our Lady. The legend tells us that John of Antioch even dared to kiss Mary's mouth, and this kiss gave him wisdom and great eloquence, and spread a golden glory round his mouth, hence his surname Chrysostom (golden mouth).[2]

People kiss the pictures and statues of saints. Down in St Peter's church in Rome there is a remarkable old bronze figure of St Peter, which is said to date from the fifth century, and the faithful have, in all ages, shown the highest veneration to this image, in consequence of which a great part of the right foot has been gradually kissed away.

Even nowadays the kiss bestowed on the pictures of the saints plays an enormous part in the Roman Catholic, but more particularly in the Greek Church. Not only their pictures, but even their relics are kissed; they make both soul and body whole. St Balbina obtained forgiveness for her sins by kissing St Peter's chains, and Pascal's niece was cured of a disease in her eyes by kissing one of the thorns of Christ's Crown. This cure, the historical authenticity of which is, however, somewhat doubtful, made a great sensation, and provoked a violent controversy between the Jansenists and Jesuits.

Besides, there are legends innumerable of sick people regaining their health by kissing relics; innumerable, too, are the satires which arose by reason of abuses in respect to cures which were achieved with relics genuine and false. One of the best known is perhaps the mediæval story of The Monk's Breeches.

A Franciscan friar was a very intimate friend of a merchant in Orleans and his wife—especially of the latter. One evening the merchant returned home unexpectedly from a journey, and the friar, who had tried to the best of his ability to entertain the wife in the husbands absence, for certain circumstances which were capable of being misunderstood, thought it wisest to disappear as quick as possible; but in his haste he forgot his breeches. The merchant, however, did not notice anything; the night was dark, and next morning he even put on the friar's breeches instead of his own. On coming back home from his office in the afternoon—he had long discovered his mistake—he demanded, with violent and hasty words, an explanation from his wife; but the latter, who had discovered at once in the morning what had happened, hurriedly sent a messenger to the friar to consult with him as to what was to be done. According to their arrangement she answered her husband very calmly:

"My dear friend, don't fly into a passion; you ought to thank me instead of quarrelling with me. You know we have no children, and we have tried everything—but all in vain. Now I heard that St Francis' breeches could work miracles, even of that sort, and that is why I had them fetched for you. Take them off now, for I expect some one from the monastery will be coming for them directly." The poor man in his delight quickly got out of his breeches, and directly he had done so there came a knocking at the door. It was the friar, followed by a choir boy carrying holy-water and a censer. He had come to fetch the precious relic of the monastery, and inquisitive neighbours flocked in from all quarters. He wrapped the breeches reverently up in a white hand-cloth, and sprinkled them with holy-water while the boy incensed them, after which he lifted up the sacred bundle. Meanwhile all fell on their knees, and after pronouncing a panegyric on St Francis, he himself carried round the breeches so that the people who had assembled might kiss them. This they did with deep piety and emotion, more especially the honest and grateful merchant.

This little story afforded much merriment in the Middle Ages. People found much enjoyment in its burlesque humour, and never got tired of hearing it. It occurs as a fabliau, a farce, and a story, and belongs to the facetiæ with which the Pope's Secretary, Poggio, amused his friends in Il Bugiale (The Lie Manufactory).

Even as regards the great ones of this world the kiss used to serve in various ways as a mark of humility and reverence. Its use in ancient times was remarkably widespread; people threw themselves down on the ground before their rulers, kissed their footprints, literally "licked the dust," as it is termed. In the Psalms, Solomon sings of the promised King: "They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust"; and the prophet Isaiah says: "Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face before the earth and lick up the dust of thy feet" (xlix. 23).

They kissed not only the ground under the powerful, but also their feet, knees, hands, or the hem of their garments.

Certain Roman Emperors adopted these oriental usages. Thus Caligula ordered people to kiss his hands and feet, and even in the Middle Ages the custom of kissing the feet of kings was in vogue.

Nearly everywhere, wheresoever an inferior meets a superior, we observe the kiss of respect. The Roman slaves kissed the hands of their masters; pupils and soldiers those of their teachers and captains respectively.

During the Middle Ages the vassal paid homage to his feudal lord by a kiss on the hand or foot, hence the expression devoir la bouche et les mains. It is well-known what befell Charles the Simple when Rollo, the Norman chieftain, had to pay him feudal homage. The proud Viking would not bow down to the king, but laid hold of the latter's feet and lifted them up to his mouth, whereat the king, amidst the laughter of the spectators, tumbled down. Thus the scene is depicted briefly and graphically in the Roman de Rou:—

Quant baisier dut le pie, baisier ne le deigna,
La main tendi aual, le pie al rei leua,
A sa bouche le traist e le rei enuersa;
Asez s'en ristrent tuit, e li reis se dreça.[3]

They also kissed their liege lords on the thigh, and this method of kissing can be traced down to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but the kiss on the hand was undoubtedly most frequently in use; and it was the general custom for the vassal at the same time to hand his lord a present, which is the reason why the word baise-main (hand-kiss) gradually got this meaning.

If the lord was absent when the vassal waited on him, the latter had to kiss the door, the lock or bolt, which was regarded as a valid substitution for kissing the hand. From this arose the expressions, baiser l'huis, (the door), baiser le verrouil, (the bolt), which were used partly as an expression of slavish subserviency, and partly in an ironical sense of lovers who have been rejected by their mistresses, and thus constrained to

Kiss the door, and kiss its chains
For ladies' sake who are within.W. F. H.

As expressive not only of respect, but also of repentance, children in former days were made to kiss the rod by which they had been chastised. Geiler von Keiserberg writes in the sixteenth century: "When children are thrashed they kiss the rods and say:

Liebe ruot, trute ruot
werestu, ich tet niemer guot.[4]

"They kiss the rods and jump over them, yea they leap over them." We have a memorial of this custom in the phrase, "kissing the rod."

There is still one great power that we have not mentioned, and one who demands, too, homage by kisses, i.e., the devil; but, in order that the humility shown to him may be as great as possible, he must be kissed on his behind, i.e., on the place where the back ceases to be called the back. Old pictures of the Sabbath on Blocksberg exhibit to us his Satanic majesty, in the guise of a goat or cat, sitting on a high seat, while his worshippers reverently approach and kiss him under his tail. In several confessions of witches we find this kiss still more closely described: "The devil has a big tail, and under it a sort of face, but with this face he never speaks, as the only use he makes of it is to let his most devoted followers kiss the same; for kissing this face is regarded as an especially great honour." This somewhat awkward kiss occurs, moreover, in several sagas. In Harehyrden the Jeppe gives up his magic flute to the king on condition that the latter kisses his ass under its tail. It can also be shown in actual life, and we have some anecdotes from the Middle Ages which seem to prove that the podex-kiss was used as a derisory punishment. There is also a story told of a merry knight, once upon a time, compelling a party of monks to pay their respects to their abbot in the aforesaid less dignified way.

Kisses in ano seem also to have been required of neophytes on their reception into certain secret societies.

The part this kiss plays in insulting speech ought to be sufficiently well known. The Romans ere now spoke about lingere culum or lambere nates; the Germans more decently say: Küss mich da ich sitz' (Kiss me where I sit), or Er kan mich küssen da wo ich keine Nase habe (He can kiss me where I have no nose). Frenchmen even use the last mentioned paraphrastic expression. It is told in an old poem about Theodore de Beza, whose youth was, as you are aware, a very dissipated one, that, on one occasion, he said of a lady that he would like to kiss her, but he did not know how he could manage to do so as her nose was far too long. When the lady learnt this she wittily replied:

...Pour si peu ne tenez,
Car si cela seulement vous en garde!
J'ai bien pour vous un visage sans nez.[5]

We have no knowledge if this offer tempted the rigid Calvinist that was to be; but the lady was undoubtedly young, and even if he had not found her face so remarkably beautiful, yet it would have been very different had the invitation come from an old crone, as the well-known saying, "baiser le cul de la vieille," implies the deepest ignominy that can befall a man, at any rate a gambler—viz., to lose without scoring a point.

There is a Jutland variant of the story about Theodore de Beza: "I was driving one day with Niels Hundepenge, and we saw at a distance a woman walking on in front. Says Niels, 'Peter, there goes a pretty girl; just see what a figure, and how she steps out.' When we got up to her we found she was pock-marked and hideous. Then says Niels, 'Now, my girl, if you were only as good-looking in front as you are behind, I should want to kiss you.''Well, if you think so,' replied she, 'you can kiss me, you know, where you fancy I am best looking.'"

Allow me, in connection with this, to call your attention to a peculiarity about the Latin word osculum. The first syllable os of course signifies "mouth," the two last, on the other hand, mean the correlative part on the reverse side of the body. This circumstance has been made use of in a Latin anecdote about a married lady. An importunate suitor asked her for a kiss, whereupon she replied that this could not be granted, inasmuch as the first of what he asked absolutely belonged to her husband, but, as she did not wish to be too hard on him, he was welcome to have the last:

Syllaba prima meo debetur tota marito,
Sume tibi reliquas, non ero dura, duas.[6]

In modern times the ceremonious kiss of respect has gone clean out of fashion in the most civilised countries; it is only retained in the Church, but in all other domains it is practically unknown—so unknown, indeed, that in many cases the practice would be offensive or ridiculous.

Kissing the earth is another instance of such kisses that I shall quote. It plays a part in the old stories about Junius Brutus. Together with King Tarquin's sons he journeyed to Delphi to consult the oracle. The answer they received was that the supreme power would fall to the lot of him who first kissed his mother. Brutus then made a pretence of stumbling, and as he fell he kissed the earth, our common mother. A few years after this, the royal family were expelled from Rome, and Brutus and Lucius Turquinius were elected consuls.

People also kissed the earth for joy on returning to their native land after a lengthened absence. When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War:

Stepped he forth inwardly glad to the shore of his well-loved country,
Kissing and kissing again his mother earth while the scalding
Tears down his cheeks were coursing, though his heart was brimming with blitheness.

Even nowadays people feel glad at seeing their native country again after long absence, but they have another way of expressing their joy, and, without exaggeration, it would be safe to assert that if any one returning from a journey wished to emulate Agamemnon, that person would undoubtedly be put down as mad.

We find in Holberg ("Ulysses of Ithaca," or "A German Comedy") a parody of the old usage, where Ulysses says: "Let us fall down, after the old hero's fashion, and kiss our mother earth." They fall down and kiss the ground, but Chilian gets up hurriedly and says: "The deuce! I don't really understand the use of these ceremonies. Eugh, somebody has been here before—that I can plainly perceive."

The old custom now only survives in certain sayings. Frenchmen use the expression baiser la terre (to kiss the earth), jeeringly, of a person falling; and the German, die Erde küssen (to kiss the earth), is a euphemistic way of saying "die." I may add, for the sake of completeness, that kissing the earth still occurs sporadically nowadays in the sense of the profoundest humility mingled with regret. When Raskolnikow, in Dostojewski's novel of that name, has confided to Sonja how he murdered the old usurer's wife, he exclaims in his despair: "And what shall I do now?"—"What shall you do now," exclaims Sonja, and her eyes flash: "Get up, go hence at once; station yourself at a crossway, kneel down and kiss the earth you have defiled, bow down thus before all the people, and say to them: 'I have committed murder.' Then God shall give you new life."

And, finally, when Raskolnikow has determined publicly to acknowledge his crime and denounce himself as a murderer, he falls prostrate on his knees in the middle of the market-place, bows down, and, amidst the laughter and derision of the bystanders, kisses the dirty ground with ecstasy and delight.

In Europe, at least, we no longer kiss the ground before the feet of the mighty, any more than we salute them by kissing their hands or feet; a bow more or less gracious, according to circumstances, serves the same purpose generally. Nevertheless, at certain courts, such as the Spanish, English, and Russian, kissing the hand is still customary as a sort of ceremonial salutation; but its practice is usually confined to certain solemn occasions.

Individuals of princely rank excepted, the kiss of respect to superiors is to be regarded as all but extinct; but even in the eighteenth century, kissing the hem of their garments is mentioned as a salutation befitting ladies of exalted rank, and in Holberg's Politiske Kandestøber (the Political Pewterer), we see how Madame Abrahamsen and Madame Sanderus even kissed Gedske on the apron.

Kissing, as expressive of admiration, still undoubtedly occurs, but can scarcely be said to be particularly general; it becomes less and less common as we approach our own time.

A half-ironical instance occurs in Molière; in Les Femmes Savantes Armande and Philaminte fall into raptures over Vadius' great learning. Du grec! O ciel! du grec! Il sait du grec, ma sœur! (Greek! good heavens! Greek! He knows Greek, sister), says the one, and the other answers: Du grec! quelle douceur! (Greek! how sweet!). In their boundless enthusiasm they ask Vadius to let them kiss him as a mark of their admiration. He accepts this salutation very politely, if not with any particularly great joy; but when he turns to young Henriette, from whose lips he is especially desirous of receiving so tender an expression of admiration, she rejects him quite abruptly with the remark: Excusez-moi, monsieur, je n'entends pas le Grec (Excuse me, sir, I don't understand Greek).

The pedantic Vadius got just what he deserved—a kiss as dry as dust from two middle-aged, sexless blue-stockings, which nobody begrudges him. On the other hand, many, perhaps, will read with envy of the homage received by Benjamin Franklin at the French Court. Mme. de Campan, in her Mémoires, says: "At one of the splendid entertainments given in Franklin's honour, I saw how the most beautiful of the three hundred ladies present was chosen to place a laurel crown on the white locks of the American philosopher and imprint a kiss on each of the old man's cheeks."

The kiss of admiration and respect has, I suppose, been the longest to survive in the form of kissing ladies' hands. Formerly, in many countries, it constituted a friendly greeting on meeting a lady or saying good-bye to her; but nowadays this custom has grown obsolete in most places; nevertheless we have certain literary reminiscences of it. In Austria people say Küss die Hand, gnädige Frau, and Sârut mâna in Roumania, but still it is comparatively rare that this expression is followed by actual kisses, as was formerly the case. Je vous baise les mains is now only used in an ironical sense in France. Ceremonial kisses, however, still flourish in Spain to a marked degree, not only in the language of the Court, but also in general conversation. When I was first presented to a Spanish lady I expressed my gladness at making her acquaintance by kissing her hand—only, however, by figure of speech—but her husband at once pointed out to me in a laughing way, that I had failed to show her proper respect. One can only kiss a Spanish lady's feet: Beso à usted los pies or à los pies de usted (I kiss your feet), as they say.

Before leaving the subject of the kiss reverential I will mention two different ways in which it has been used. Formerly it was the custom, at least at the French Court, for pages to first kiss the articles they were to hand to distinguished personages. Henri Estienne tells an anecdote about a page who had to carry a letter to the Princess of Naples. It was expressly enjoined on him to kiss it (baisez-la), but the page pretended he had misunderstood the words, so when he had to leave the letter he first kissed the unsuspecting princess.

We find another peculiar form of the kiss reverential in the cases when a person kisses his own hand before offering it to the guest he would especially honour, or before accepting a present for which he wishes to show his gratitude in an extraordinarily polite manner.[7]

In an old comedy of Marivaux, "Harlequin poli par l'Amour," a fairy falls in love with a rustic lout. She carries him off, entertains him in her castle, and tries in every possible way to gain his love; but he remains utterly callous to all her blandishments, and behaves all the time in a most foolish manner. He takes a fancy to a valuable ring the fairy is wearing; she removes it from her finger and gives it to him, but when he scarcely says "Thank you" for it, she says to chide him: Mon cher Arlequin, un beau garçon comme vous, quand une dame lui presente quelque chose, doit baiser la main en la reçevant.[7] Arlequin takes hold of the fairy's hand and kisses it; but she corrects him again, and says: "He does not understand me once, but I like his mistake. It is your own hand, you know, that you should kiss."[8]

This usage still prevails amongst old peasants in Jutland, and is termed receiving something with "kissed hand," or "kiss hand." The expression Kusshand is also employed in German, and is explained thus: "Gruss, wobei man die eigne Hand küsst und dann nach der zu grüssenden Person hin bewegt oder sie reicht." The same sort of greeting is found both in England and France. Voltaire tells us that children in certain countries are taught to kiss their right hand when anybody gives them something good. Even at the present day, in certain places on the Alps, peasants express their thanks by kissing their hand before taking what is given to them.

  1. Retranslated from the Danish of the Text.
  2. We have here a striking example of how legends arise. John, the Father of the Church, got the epithet "golden-mouth" on account of his great eloquence; but the people sought another more concrete explanation, if I may use the term, of that name, the metaphorical use of which they failed to comprehend.
  3. And when he had to kiss Charles' foot—such kissing Rollo spurned—
    He thrust his hand forth downward, and to the monarch turned.
    He raised the king's foot to his lips, and overturned the king,
    Who quickly rose upon his feet whilst mirth around did ring.

    W. F. H.

  4. Which may be freely translated:

    Dear, kind rod that's trusty stood,
    Without thee ne'er should I do good.

  5. ...Well, if you chose
    With less to be content, don't stick at this.
    I have for you a face without a nose.

    W. F. H.

  6. My first is for my husband, not for you;
    But you're right welcome to the other two.

    W. F. H.

  7. 7.0 7.1 My dear Arlequin, a handsome lad like you, when a lady offers him anything, ought to kiss the hand when he receives it.
  8. Omitted in the last edition.