The Kiss and its History/Chapter 7

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1981717The Kiss and its History — Chapter VII. Various Kinds of KissesWilliam Frederick HarveyKristoffer Nyrop



Einen Kuss in Ehren
Darf niemand wehren.

German Proverb.

No one should take amiss
An honest-hearted kiss.

W. F. H.



It has been previously shown by numerous examples that kissing occupies a prominent place in certain ceremonies. It would be easy to multiply instances of this.

We know from Roman law that the so-called osculum interveniens, which concerned gifts, was exchanged between engaged couples. The law enacts that, in the event of one of the contracting parties dying before the marriage, only a moiety of the presents are to be returned, provided a kiss was exchanged at the betrothal, but, if no kiss had been exchanged, all the presents were to be returned.[1]

The kiss was regarded as the introduction, as it were, to matrimonial cohabitation—initium consummationis nuptiarum; it was symbolical of marriage—viri et mulieris conjunctio. Certain ancient jurists have even discussed the question whether a married woman who has suffered herself to be kissed by a stranger has not thereby rendered herself guilty of adultery.

The decree of the Roman law which, so far as I know, still partly holds good in Greece, is met with again in the Latin countries during the Middle Ages. It was incorporated in the law of the Visigoths (Lex Romana Visigothorum), and migrated thence to the different old Spanish fueros and the old French law, in which the word osculum was also used in the learned form oscle. It was likewise admitted into the law of the Lombards, and Italy is most probably the West European country where donatio propter osculum has been longest retained. We find, even down to our own times, traces of the same in customary laws.

This is probably the only ceremonial kiss that has received legal sanction; but wherever elsewhere we may turn our eyes and investigate old ceremonies, we constantly find the kiss a necessary and important part.

Its usage was, for instance, general at weddings. Thomas Platter, who studied at the University, of Montpellier at the end of the sixteenth century, tells us, in his "Diary," that the majority of marriages took place in private, without witnesses, through fear of witchcraft; though the wedding feast, on the contrary, was celebrated in public with a vast concourse of guests, and with many merry episodes. At the conclusion of the feast the bride was divested of her bridal array, amidst jokes and raillery, smart young bachelors having to take off her garters; and when at last she sat up in bed, clad only in linen, then all the guests, male and female, came and kissed her on the mouth, and the kisses were followed by facetious compliments and good wishes.

Moreover, at the later ceremony of dubbing a knight, the newly-made knight of the Golden Fleece was kissed by the master of the ceremonies, and had afterwards to kiss all the senior knights present.

At certain academical functions the kiss also formed part of the festal ceremony; in the seventeenth century the Dean, when degrees were conferred, kissed all the new doctors and masters.

Even in the guilds we meet with the kiss, though in a somewhat peculiar form. Hübertz tells us that at the ceremony of admitting a member into the Guild of Tanners, the candidate chose for his "Kränzjungfer" a girl who had to be "fairly a maiden." She painted black moustaches on his upper lip, and the senior member placed a crown on his head. This done, he kissed the latter, removed the crown, and decorated him instead with a "Jungferkranz." Finally, the senior member made a speech to the new member, and gave him three boxes on the ears, on which the girl kissed him, and washed off his moustaches, whilst "Vater" hung a sword to his waist.

The ceremony of reception into the Guild of Carpenters was followed by a feast, at which the members, as a sign that they were now grown-up, were allowed, on the payment of a mark, to kiss the barmaid, who was usually the innkeeper's daughter.

It is easily understood that the kiss likewise came to play a prominent part in many different dances and games.

Kiss-dances were very common during the Middle Ages and even later. Montaigne describes one that he witnessed at Augsburg in 1580. "The ladies," said he, "sit in two rows along the walls of the room. The gentlemen go away and bow to them; they kiss the latter's hands, and the ladies get up, but without kissing them on the hand. Then each gentleman puts his arm round the lady's waist, right beneath her shoulder, kisses her, and lays his cheek to hers."[2] Whether it is the lady's cheek or mouth that is kissed, he omits to state; but it is certain that kisses on the mouth were not uncommon.

A Swiss traveller who stayed for some time in France in the middle of the sixteenth century relates that, when he was in Montpellier, he was invited to a ball, and there met a very beautiful young lady; but, he adds, her nose was a trifle too long, and so her partner had great difficulty in kissing her mouth, "as is the general custom."

The kiss-dance has not yet died out in Germany; but it appears no longer to have the graceful forms of the Renaissance period, if we can trust Fritz Reuter's description in his Journey to Belgium. At a wedding when the kiss-dance is to be held, the parish clerk cautiously inquires of the clergyman whether kissing is regarded as unbefitting his priestly dignity, but when the answer comes short and shrewd, "Kiss away," he bows to Mrs Black and—smack!—gives her a couple of hearty kisses right on her mouth. Madame was thoroughly frightened, but that did not avail, but every time he swang round with her, she got a proper, smacking kiss.

But it is evident from Romeo and Juliet that even in England there were dances in which a gentleman was allowed to kiss his partner. All know the beautiful words with which Romeo claims his right:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.(I. 5.)

One can still take the same liberty at Christmastide under the mistletoe. I know a young English lady who was offended with an American gentleman who did not dare to avail himself of his privilege, because he thought that this custom was obsolete in Europe.

Kissing in our time still plays an important part in France in the refrains of dance songs. Le Bouquet de ma Mie ends with:

Bell' bergère, embrasse-moi,
Embrasse, embrasse, embrasse!

And in Ramenez vos Moutons, Bergère, is sung by way of conclusion:

Tombez à genoux,
Jurez devant tous.
D'être un jour époux
Et embrassez-vous.[3]

There is, I suppose, no doubt that in these games the kiss is given and taken, as the dramatis personæ are generally children, but what takes place when adults amuse themselves with these rondes, I do not know; but I consider it probable that the gentleman will demand as his due a kiss, at any rate on the cheek. There also exists an old ronde à baisers, which is very characteristic and merry. In this it is the lady who has to take the first step:

Madame, entrez dans la danse,
Regardez-en la cadence,
Et puis vous embrasserez
Celui que vous aimerez.[4]

As the living expression of the warmest and sincerest human feelings kissing has been credited, in the world of fairy tales and superstition, with a considerable curative and prophylactical power.

We have seen, in the old sagas and ballads, how enchantments are broken by means of a kiss; we have seen how holy men in the legends restore the sick to health by means of a kiss, etc. Kissing has, on the whole, influenced popular credulity to a large extent, and of the numerous superstitious notions concerning it I only quote some few:

If you would protect yourself against lightning you should make three crosses before you, and kiss the ground three times. (Germany.)

If you want to have luck in gambling you must kiss the cards before the game begins. (France.)

If you have the toothache you should kiss a donkey on his chops. (Germany.) This very efficacious advice is found as far back as Pliny.

If you drop a bit of bread on the floor you must kiss it when you pick it up. The same respect is also to be shown to books you have dropped. (Denmark, Germany.)

According to Danish superstition, it is a bad omen when the first person you meet of a morning is an old woman; nevertheless, you can ward off all evil consequences by giving her a kiss. Evil must be expelled by evil.

People kiss little children when they have knocked themselves, in order to take away the pain; they must "kiss them well again," as it is termed, or, as Englishmen say, "kiss the place and make it well."

The Greenland mother, who does not understand kissing as expressive of love, kisses her sick child on the breast, shoulders, hips, and navel to restore it to health.

As the loving kiss of a living human creature brings life, health, and happiness, so it is thought, on the other hand, that kisses of a supernatural being bring destruction.

In Lucian's True History there is a description of a perilous journey to the realms of fancy. In one of these the travellers came upon a remarkable vineyard wherein all the vines at the bottom were green and luxuriant, but those above had the shape of women. "They greeted us, as we drew nigh, and bade us halt. Some of us kissed them on the mouth, and those who were kissed lost their understanding and reeled about like drunken men. But worse befell those who had suffered themselves to be embraced by these women; they were powerless to extricate themselves from the latter's arms, and we beheld their fingers changed into boughs and twigs."[5]

I will here call your attention to the Roumanian song about cholera, which comes in the shape of an ugly old woman to Vîlcu, and Vîlcu entreats it thus: "Take my horse, take my weapons, but give me still some days so I may once more see my children, which are as dear to me as the light of the sun." But the old woman stretches forth her bony arms, folds Vîlcu to her bosom, presses her pallid lips to his, and, in a death-dealing kiss, takes his life, whereupon she departs with a mocking laugh. The Roumanian text is here very strong:

Gură pe gură punea,
Buze pe buze lipĭa,
Zilele i le sorbĭa.
Apoĭ cloanza ear ridea,
Cu zilele purcedea,
Si voĭnicul mort cădea.

Even a spectre's kiss brings death. In an English variant of the ballad of Leonora, Margaret says to her dead bridegroom, who is knocking at her door at night: "Come and kiss me on the cheek and chin."—"Perhaps I shall come to thee," he replies, but:

If I shou'd come within thy bower,
I am no mortal man;
And shou'd I kiss thy rosy lips,
Thy days will not be long.

I shall also call your attention, in connection with the foregoing, to a curious old story of the venomous girl.

A young maiden had from her tenderest years been reared on all the most deadly poisons. Her beauty was marvellous, but her breath was so poisonous that it killed everybody who came near her. She was sent to the palace of Alexander the Great, as the king's enemies reckoned on his falling in love with her and dying in her arms. When the king saw her he at once wanted to make her his mistress; but the shrewd Aristotle suspected treachery. He restrained the king, and had a criminal who had been sentenced to death sent for. The criminal was made to kiss the girl in presence of the king, and he fell prone on the ground, poisoned by her breath, like one struck by lightning.

This story can be traced to India. It found its way into several mediæval story-books and attained great popularity. The monks made use of it in their sermons, and gave it an allegorical interpretation: Alexander was the good, trustful Christian; Aristotle was the conscience; the venomous girl, incontinence, which comprehends everything that is poisonous to the soul; and the criminal is the wicked man who pursues the lusts of the flesh and suffers his punishment. "Let us, therefore, abstain from all such things if we wish to reach Paradise," is the moral that the monk draws from it at the close of his sermon.

In conclusion I will quote several expressions to which kissing has given rise:

A lady's hat which was fashionable in England in 1850, and which had no brim to it, got the name of Kiss-me-quick. In contradistinction to this, the old-fashioned Danish hats with prominent brims were called Kiss-me-if-you-can. We have a modern variant in the Salvation lasses' Stop-kissing-me hat.

In France, during the last century, there was a colour of the name of Baise-moi ma mignonne, called in England "heart's-ease": Look-up-and-kiss-me, Kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, Kiss-me-ere-I-rise or Jump-up-and-kiss-me.

The verb "to kiss" is often used in a figurative sense, e.g., the Italians say of one who likes drinking, "He kisses the flask" (Bacia il fiasco); the Germans say of mean people, "They kiss the farthing" (Den Pfennig küssen); the English too speak of a penny-kisser.

This figurative meaning is not, however, confined to jocose expressions and phrases; on the contrary, it occurs perhaps more frequently in serious prose.

Our whole life, lived in love to our neighbour and nature, is nothing more than one long kiss.

Kaalund somewhere says:

A babe was I not long ere this,
But time too swiftly slips;
And that is why I press a kiss
So warmly on life's lips.

W. F. H.

A similar figurative use is extraordinarily common with the poets. H. C. Andersen, in Goose-grass, says of the lark that it flies past the tulip and other aristocratic flowers only to light on the sward by the humble goose-grass, which it kisses with its beak, and for which it sings its joyous song. The other poets represent the waves as kissing the white beach, the bees, the scented flowers; and the ears of corn in the fields as heaving beneath the warm kisses of the sun's golden rays. The sun's kisses are oscula sancta; every creature shares in them, for they are the most beautiful expression of God's love. Ingemann sings in a morning hymn:

The sun looks down on hut and hall,
On haughty king and beggar weeping,
Beholds the great ones and the small,
And kisses babes in cradles sleeping.

W. F. H.

  1. Si ab sponso rebus sponsæ donatis, interveniente osculo, ante nuptias hunc vel illam mori contigerit, dimidiam partem rerum donatarum ad superstitem pertinere præcipimus, dimidiam ad defuncti vel defunctæ heredes cuiuslibet gradus sint et quocunque iure successerint, ut donatio stare pro parte media et solvi pro parte media videatur: osculo vero non interveniente, sive sponsus sive sponsa obierit, totam infirmari donationem et donatori sponso sive heredibus eius restitui.
  2. Retranslated from the Danish Text.
  3. Now down on your knees fall,
    And promise straightway
    To be wife and husband,
    And then kiss away.W. F. H.

  4. Madame, join the dancing throng,
    Listen to their measured song;
    But remember, for the rest,
    You shall kiss whom you love best.W. F. H.

  5. Retranslated from the Danish of the Text.