Kisses,Cards, and Plagues

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August 10, 2020 by libroshombre

My partner in life is a confirmed ornithophile, or bird lover, but she appreciates them more than obsesses.  She supports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the summer edition of their quarterly publication, “Living Bird,” featured a pair of long-billed American avocets gracefully crossing their beaks while courting.  It reminded me how many of our social gestures are being modified by the pandemic.  Hand shaking, cheek kissing, and prolonged hugging are all out, but we crave human interaction.  So, bowing and hand gesturing – like the namaste in yoga – elbow bumping, toe tapping, and air kissing are in vogue.

Having read all of Samuel Pepys’ diaries from the 1600s, and the relevant parts of “How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts” by Ruth Goodman, I know a bit about proper air and hand kissing.  Pepys’ Diary is considered the best insight into the England of his time, which includes the Great Plague of London in 1666, but it’s ten volumes long, and “Lessons from Samuel Pepys’ Plague Diary,” an article from, covers the high points.  The London plague emerged in June 1665.  But with no lockdown in place, people stayed away from being in public.  “But Lord!,” Pepys wrote in August 1665, “how sad a sight to see all the streets empty of people … Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, shut up.”  Then it started getting bad.  Bodies in the street bad.

This pandemic struck Britain during tumultuous political times.  “The nation was deep into the Second Anglo-Dutch War, a nasty naval conflict had torpedoed the British economy,” as Annalee Newitz wrote in “What Social Distancing Looked Like in 1666” for  “Just five years before, King Charles II had wrested back control of the government from the Puritan members of Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell.  Though Cromwell died in 1658, the king had him exhumed, his corpse put in chains and tried for treason.”  Charles had his good side, and also sanctioned the Founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.  The Royal Society, as it came to be known, led the way in the development of scientific research.  Moreover, “It was most likely thanks to his interest in science that government representatives and doctors quickly used social distancing methods for containing the spread of bubonic plague.”  In 1666, as the disease worsened, Charles halted all public gatherings, even closing Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

The English were big kissers, historically, especially smack-dab on the mouth.  “While foreign observers were particularly struck by mixed-sex kissing, same-sex kissing may have been just as important and as prevalent,” Goodman wrote.  Hand and air kissing were equally widespread.  She cited “Chirologia,” a book James Bulwer wrote “to help preachers communicate effectively by employing hand gestures in sermons.  By 1644 kissing your hand had become the single gesture ‘most frequent in the formalities of civil conversation’ and took a number of forms.”

Loyalty and respect were expressed by kissing the back of someone else’s hand.  “If the person was especially prestigious, or a woman, you might forego touching their hand with your lips, simply hovering a fraction over the hand … to imply that you didn’t feel worthy.”  Lower ranks could show respect to higher-ups by kissing the back of their own hands and throwing the smooch towards the other person.

Ancient Mesopotamians invented the practice to throw kisses to their gods. However, kissing’s not a universal human practice.  Some researchers believe it originated through “kiss-feeding,” where mothers pre-masticated food.  Others think kissing evolved as a grooming gesture.  The Romans were serious kissers, having three types: “osculum” (cheek), “basium” (lips), and “savolium” (deep and passionate), but European social kissing died with the Roman Empire, not to be revived until Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Courtly Love fad around 1100 CE.  The Spanish reputedly started the hand-kissing fad when they controlled Naples, from whence it spread to the Italian dancing masters who exported it to France and then England.

Over half our Borough’s population have public library cards they’ve used in the past two years, and, due to the pandemic, some might have temporarily kissed utilizing the library’s many services goodbye.  Keeping everyone safe has severely limited access to library buildings, but not to services.  You can check out and download materials, attend online programs, and get personal assistance from librarians and get reliable information.  And as Johann von Goethe noted, “A correct answer is like an affectionate kiss.”


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