The Kiss and its History/Chapter 6

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1982182The Kiss and its History — Chapter VI. The Kiss of FriendshipWilliam Frederick HarveyKristoffer Nyrop



Par amistiet l'en baisat en la buche.

For friendship pressed a kiss upon his mouth.

W. F. H.



The kiss is also employed as a conventional salutation between persons who only stand on a footing of friendship or acquaintance with each other. In our northern countries the friendly kiss usually occurs only between ladies, but in this instance its usage is very widely extended. With men and women it is properly only allowable when there is a marked difference in age between both parties, but, on the other hand, it seldom or never takes place between men, with the exception, however, of royal personages who, on solemn occasions, are wont to greet and take leave of each other with more or less sincere kisses of greeting and farewell. Here we find ourselves again in a sphere in which, alas, we have sadly fallen away from the good old ways. In former times, to wit, the friendly kiss was very common with us between man and man as well as between persons of opposite sexes. In guilds it was customary for the members to greet each other "with hearty handshakes and smacking kisses," and, on the conclusion of a meal, people thanked and kissed both their hosts and hostesses. In a description of a wedding in the olden time in the district of Voer in Denmark we read:

"When they had eaten, the parish clerk got up first, put his arms round the parson's neck, and kissed him on the mouth, saying: Tak for mad, hr. pastor (Thanks for your hospitality, sir priest). Then the parson planted himself against a chest of drawers, and all the women, old and young, went up to him, one after the other, and kissed him on the mouth. Some of the old goodies could not quite reach him, for the priest was a big, tall man, and they had actually to climb on to his boots, though he stooped down to them slightly." Peder Havgård said that he would not have cared much to be in the parson's place, for it was a mean and poor country thereabouts, and some of the women were very shabbily-dressed and dirty-looking.

If we glance outside Denmark it appears that the kiss of friendship is considerably in vogue. In Iceland it is still a general form of salutation, although of late years there is said to be a certain falling off in its use; and every one who travels in South Germany and Austria can study at the very first railway station the different forms of that kind of kiss which in those countries is specially used by way of leave-taking; officers and students, farmers and merchants, all treat each other to sounding kisses, usually on the cheek. One can observe the same sort of thing in France, but more especially in Italy. I can attest from personal experience that it is looked upon as the most natural thing in the world for people to kiss their intimate friends when saying good-bye, a shake of the hand being far too cold a leave-taking beneath the warm sky of Italy.

It is, however, undoubted that, speaking generally, the custom of kissing, as an ordinary greeting, has immensely declined; in ancient times and in the Middle Ages it was much more frequent than nowadays.

It was the common practice with the Hebrews for acquaintances, when they met, to kiss each other on the head, hands, and shoulders; and it was assuredly with a kiss of pretended friendship that Judas betrayed his Master.

Even the Greeks in former times used kissing as a common salutation; not only friends and acquaintances kissed each other, but also persons who quite accidentally met when they were travelling.

The custom of kissing, however, became less general later on. In a discourse of Dion Chrysostomus, called From Eubœa, or "The Hunter," is a story of a rustic coming to the city and meeting two acquaintances in the assembly, whom he goes up to and kisses. "But," says the rustic, "people laughed prodigiously at my kissing them, and, on that occasion, I learnt that it is not customary for people of the city to kiss each other."[1]

Kissing seems to have been much more in vogue with the Romans, amongst whom it was the usual custom for people to salute each other with a kiss on the hand, the cheek, or the mouth. Many even, scented their mouths in order to render their kisses more pleasing—or less unpleasant. Martial laments over this usage in a little epigram to Posthumus:

What's this that myrrh doth still smell in thy kiss,
And that with thee no other odour is?
'Tis doubt, my Posthumus, he that doth smell
So sweetly always, smells not very well.

This kissing of friends gradually became a veritable nuisance to the country. Fashion ordained that every one should give and receive such kisses, but, in reality, every one preferred evading them. Martial, in another epigram to this same Posthumus, exclaims:

Posthumus late was wont to kiss
With one lip, which I loth;
But now my plague redoubled is,—
He kisses me with both.


Posthumus' kisses some must have,
And some salute his fist;
Thy hand, good Posthumus, I crave,
If I may choose my list.

Under such frightful circumstances people had recourse to shifts which seem almost as unsavoury as the kisses they would escape:

Why on my chin a plaster clapped;
Besalved my lips, that are not chapped;
Philænis, why? The cause is this:
Philænis, thee I will not kiss.

But such artifices, however, are of very little use; no one escapes the basiatores (kissers). They prowl about the streets and market-places; not even the walls of the home, nor even the enforced solitariness of the most hidden-places served as a protection against them:

There are no means the kissing tribe to shun,
They meet you, stop you, after you they run,
Press you before, behind, to each side cleave,
No place, no time, no men, exempted leave;
A dropping nose, salved lips, can none reprieve,
Gangrenes, foul running sores, no one relieve;
They kiss you in a sweat, or starved with cold,
Lovers' their mistress' kisses cannot hold;
A chair is no defence, with curtains guarded,
With door and windows shut, and closely warded,
The kissers, through a chink will find a way,
Presume the tribune, consul's self, to stay;
Nor can the awful rods, or Lictor's mace,
His stounding voice away these kissers chase,
But they'll ascend the Rostra, curule chair,
The judges kiss while they give sentence there.
Those laugh they kiss, and those that sigh and weep;
'Tis all the same whether you laugh or weep;
Those who do bathe, or recreate in pool,
Who are withdrawn to ease themselves at stool.
Against this plague I know no fence but this:
Make him thy friend whom thou abhorr'st to kiss.

All greet one another with kisses; every condition of life, every handicraft, found a representative amongst the basiatores. When a man, in ancient times, was afraid of meeting his tailor, it was not so much on account of the latter's bill as by reason of his kisses.

"Rome," says Martial, "gives, on one's return after fifteen years' absence, such a number of kisses as exceeds those given by Lesbia to Catullus. Every neighbour, every hairy-faced farmer, presses on you with a strongly-scented kiss. Here the weaver assails you, there the fuller and cobbler, who has just been kissing leather; here the owner of a filthy beard, and a one-eyed gentleman; there one with bleared eyes, and fellows whose mouths are defiled with all manner of abominations. It was hardly worth while to return."

People kissed whenever they met: morning and evening, at all seasons of the year: spring and autumn, summer and winter. The winter kisses seem to have been especially unpleasant, and Martial censures them, in the strongest terms, in his epigram to Linus:

'Tis winter, and December's horrid cold
Makes all things stark; yet, Linus, thou lay'st hold
On all thou meet'st; none can thy clutches miss;
But with thy frozen mouth all Rome dost kiss.
What could'st more spiteful do, or more severe,
Had'st thou a blow o' th' face, or box o' th' ear?
My wife, this time, to kiss me does forbear,
My daughter, too, however debonaire.
But thou more trim and sweeter art. No doubt
Th' icicles, hanging at thy dog-like snout,
The congealed snivel dangling on thy beard,
Ranker than th' oldest goat of all the herd.
The nastiest mouth i' th' town I'd rather greet,
Than with thy flowing frozen nostrils meet.
If therefore thou hast either shame or sense,
Till April comes no kisses more dispense.

That Martial's epigrams depict the actual state of the case without any particular exaggeration it may, among other things, be inferred from the fact that the Emperor Tiberius, according to Suetonius, issued an edict against these cotidiana oscula (daily kisses).

The friendly kiss was likewise much in vogue in the Middle Ages.

In La Chanson de Roland the Saracen king receives Ganelon with a kiss on the neck, and then displayed to him his treasures:

Quant l'ot Marsilies, si l'ad baisiet el' col;
Pois, si cumencet á uvrir ses trésors.


And Ganelon salutes the Saracen chiefs in the same way, and "they kissed each other on face and chin":

"Bien serat fait"—li quens Guenes respunt;
Pois, se baisièerent es vis e es mentuns.

(625, 628).

The friendly kiss is, on the whole, pretty often mentioned in the Old French epics. "Out of friendship he kissed him on the mouth" is a verse that frequently recurs:

Par l'amistiet l'en baisat en la buche.

The kiss of friendship was also exchanged between the opposite sexes. It was the general custom for ladies to salute with a kiss any stranger whether he came as an ambassador, expected guest, or a chance passer-by. In the old French mystery-play of St Bernard de Menton, the Lord of Miolan is sitting one day with his wife and daughters in the hall of his castle, when a squire steps in and announces that some strangers have arrived. The lord of the castle receives them courteously, bids them welcome in God's name, and at once orders his wife do her duty to them. She, too, bids them welcome, and kisses them; at last it comes to the turn of the little girls, who assure their father that they know their duty right well, and are even willing to perform it:

A vostre bon commandement
Les bayserons et festoyrons,
Trestons le myeulx que nous pourrons,
Mon seigneur, à vostre talent.

Which may be rendered thus:

As it is your orders dear,
We will kiss and make good cheer,
All, so far as in us lies,
Since your wishes that comprise.

W. F. H.

Whereupon they kiss the strange gentlemen. In the poem of "Huon de Bordeaux" we are told how Huon's mother, the Duchess of Bordeaux, receives the French king's embassy with kisses. The queen, in Marie de France's Lai de Graelan, sends an ambassador after Graelan to make his acquaintance, and, when he arrives, goes to meet him, and kisses him on the mouth.

In other Romance countries, too, kissing serves as a common mode of greeting, which fact can be incidentally substantiated by means of philology, inasmuch as the Latin verb salutare ('to greet') both in Spanish and Roumanian, and partially in French, has acquired the meaning of 'to kiss.'

When Abengalvon, in the old Pöema del Cid, meets Minaya Alvar Fanez, he advances smilingly towards him in order to kiss him, and he "greets" him on the shoulder, "for such was his wont":

Sonrisando de la boca, ibalo abrazar,
En el ombro lo saluda, ca tal es su usaje.

The expression "to greet on the mouth" likewise occurs many times; but also the verb saludar ('to hail') is also used alone, as in the Roumanian sâruta, to express 'to kiss.'

Even in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the friendly kiss flourished in France. When Leo Rozmital, the Bohemian nobleman, paid his respects to Louis XI. at Meung-sur-Loire, the king led him to the queen, and both she and all the ladies of her court kissed him on the mouth.

We get further information in a letter from Annibale Caro dated 29th October, 1544. It is addressed to the Duke of Palma, and describes the visit of the French Queen Eléonore to the Emperor Charles V. in Brussels. "When we met," says he, "the ceremony of reception with kissing of the ladies was, in the highest degree, interesting; it seemed as if I had been present at the Rape of the Sabines. Not only the higher nobility, but even all the rest took each his lady, and the Spaniards and Neapolitans were the most eager. It gave rise to much merriment when the Countess of Vertus, Charlotte de Pisseleu, was observed to lean over her saddle to such an extent, in order to kiss the Emperor, that she slid off her horse, and kissed the earth instead of His Majesty's mouth. The Emperor hurried up to her assistance, and with a smile kissed her heartily (e ridendo la baciò saporitamente). Directly afterwards Duke Ottavio rode up, jumped quickly off his horse, and the Emperor himself conducted him to the Queen's carriage, and there he was presented to the distinguished ladies. The Duke kissed the Queen's hand and was about to remount his charger, but the Emperor called him back, and told him that he ought also to kiss Mdme. d'Etampes, who was sitting right opposite to the Queen in the carriage. Like a good Frenchman, he exceeded the Emperor's order and kissed her on the mouth."

A vast quantity of other evidence goes to show how general was the friendly kiss of salutation even during the Renaissance, especially among the upper classes. Henri Estienne satirises it in his Apologie pour Hérodote. "Kisses are allowed," writes he, "in France between noblemen and ladies, whether they do or do not belong to the same family. If a high-born dame is in church, and any fop of her acquaintance comes, she must, in conformity with the usage prevailing in good society, get up, even if she be absorbed in the deepest devotion, and kiss him on the mouth."

Even Montaigne expresses his disapproval of such a state of things. "It is," says he, "a highly reprehensible custom that ladies should be obliged to offer their lips to every one who has a couple of lackeys at his heels, however undesirable he may be, and we men are no gainers thereby, for we have to kiss fifty ugly women to three pretty ones."

None the less, the friendly kiss held its ground right through the seventeenth and even a part of the eighteenth century. Molière's marquesses kiss each other whenever they meet; for instance, in the famous eleventh scene in Les Précieuses ridicules, when Mascarille and Jodelet fall into each other's arms with many warm kisses. In Le Misanthrope Alceste reproaches Philinte with embracing and kissing every one, and "when I ask you who it is, you scarcely know his name!"

Vous chargez la fureur de vos embrassements;
Et quand je vous demande après, quel est cet homme,
À peine pouvez-vous dire comme il se nomme.

La Bruyère has, time after time, satirised this foolish custom, which, especially at Court, seems to have assumed colossal dimensions; but even in middle-class circles etiquette required men to salute ladies with a kiss.

In an old comedy entitled Le Gentilhomme guespin a father presents his son, who is extraordinarily awkward and clumsy. The latter does not know how he ought to behave to the ladies of the house, so the father in despair gives him a dig in the ribs, and whispers in his ear: "He's bashful. Kiss the lady. One always greets a lady with a kiss."

... Il est honteux. Là, baisez done Madame;
C'est toujours en baisant qu'on salue une femme.

Molière has made use of this scene in Le Malade imaginaire, where Thomas Diafoirus pedanticly asks when he is introduced to Angélique: Baiserai-je? (Am I to kiss?).

In England we come across pretty nearly the same state of thing. Erasmus of Rotterdam, in one of his Epistolæ familiares, expresses his great satisfaction with English customs: "When you arrive every one kisses you; at your departure they bid you goodbye and kiss you; you come back, then fresh kisses. You are kissed when you meet any one, and so, too, when you separate. Wheresoever you go everything is filled with kisses, and if you have only once tasted how delicate these kisses are, and the deliciousness of their savour, you would want, my dear Faustus, to be banished to England for time and eternity." In another passage, where Erasmus is speaking of the state of the inns in England, which he mentions in terms of unqualified praise, he winds up as follows: "Everywhere at the inns one meets with pretty, smiling girls: they come and ask for one's soiled clothes; they wash them and soon bring them back again. When the travellers are about to resume their journey these girls kiss them, and take as affectionate a farewell of them as if the latter were their brothers or near relations."

And Holberg in his letter writes: "In England it is considered uncourteous to enter a house without saluting one's hostess with a kiss."

Even in the Low Countries the friendly kiss was much in vogue. Adrianus Höreboord, a professor at the University of Leyden, has, in a Latin treatise, investigated the question as to whether the custom of allowing strangers to kiss young girls, widows, and other persons' wives, on paying a visit, can be said to be in conformity with the laws of chastity. Höreboord's opinion is that such practice is in no way objectionable: as a kiss can be given without any arrière pensée, the kisses demanded by politeness may be quite chaste.

Erycius Puteanus, the learned Dutch philosopher, on the contrary, holds that the aforesaid custom is not without danger—at any rate to more sensually-disposed temperaments. In a letter on the education of a young Italian girl he writes that he would never suffer any one to kiss his pupil, adding: "Our Flemish girls never do so; they are not so ardent. They do not comprehend the language of love in glances and kisses. In the matter of Italian girls on the other hand, things are quite different, and I teach my pupil the speech of our country and our customs, kissing excepted."

The kiss of friendship was so general in Germany, even in the eighteenth century, that Klopstock could write to a friend in 1750: Vergessen sie nicht zu mir auf einen Kaffee und auf einen Kuss zu kommen. It seems, however, soon to have fallen into disuse.

As far back as 1747, Lessing had ridiculed it in a poem:

The kiss with which my friend will greet me
Is not what's rightly termed a kiss,
But only formal salutation
Because cold fashion bids him this.

W. F. H.

  1. Omitted in the last edition.