June 2006

William Burns


The Kiss in History edited by Karen Harvey

Soul kiss, Judas kiss, French kiss. Kiss of peace, kiss the bride, kiss my ass. A kiss may still be a kiss, but it can have a lot of different meanings. The essays in The Kiss in History examine a selection of them, covering the period from the Protestant Reformation to the First World War and mostly focusing on Britain.

Although the individual essays cover topics as diverse as witchhunting in early seventeenth-century Catholic Germany and the relationships of Victorian ladies with their governesses, they coalesce to tell a story of the steady removal of kissing from a public and social practice to one associated with the intimate relationships of lovers, husbands and wives, and parents and children. Kissing lost its public and ritual meaning as the acknowledgement of the kissers’ status and allegiances to one evaluated as expressing an emotional and erotic intimacy. The kiss exchanged between a vassal and a feudal lord was dying out by the late middle ages. Even before the Reformation, the religious "kiss of peace" was no longer exchanged among congregants but bestowed on a "pax," a board or flat piece of metal made for the purpose. Sacred kissing declined even further after the Reformation among both Protestants and Catholics as bodily devotions became less important than they had in medieval Christianity. Even the diabolical parody of the kiss of peace, the kiss a witch bestowed on the devil’s anus, was secularized.

Renaissance English people’s characteristic practice of kissing as a form of greeting was challenged by the late seventeenth century by those who viewed kissing between men and women as inevitably leading to lovemaking. (The success of this minor cultural revolution can be seen in the fact that no one now calls the English a nation of kissers, as they were frequently described in the sixteenth century.) Kissing in eighteenth-century Parliamentary election campaigns, whether a candidate kissed a voter’s wife or one of his female supporters kissed a voter, was increasingly suspect. The notorious kiss of Al and Tipper Gore at the 2000 Democratic convention reminds us that mixing intimate and public kissing can still lead to trouble. The "dangerous" associations of the kiss on the mouth may have contributed to the decline of the "kiss of life," invented in the eighteenth century as a means of reviving the near-drowned, and after a few decades forgotten again until the 1950s.

The rise of the erotic kiss could also be connected to growing use of cosmetic dentistry which made the mouth an increasingly sweet and pleasant erogenous zone. By the twentieth century the association of kissing with sexuality was so strong that Santanu Das devotes much of his essay on the kisses exchanged between men in the trenches of the Western Front to arguing that even when passionate they were not necessarily erotic.

The contributors are academics -- the collection originated as a conference in cultural history. Although Karen Harvey’s introduction is somewhat heavy going, the jargon is kept to a minimum in the essays themselves. Fortunately the authors are British, and British academics as a class are much better than Americans at writing for a general audience. I wish that there had been a few essays on the near-century that has passed since 1918. What would a cultural historian make of the contemporary practice of girls kissing each other to attract boys, or the odd persistence of social kissing among world leaders and soccer players?

The Kiss in History edited by Karen Harvey
Manchester University Press
ISBN 071906595X
208 pages