By Christine Axen
For medieval people, a kiss represents far more than the romantic.
From the Old English “to touch with the lips,” the kiss in history went far beyond its modern association with love in all its forms. Indeed, most public kisses involved men kissing other men for reasons that had little or nothing to do with sentiment. Multifaceted, the kiss could represent honor, loyalty, legality, veneration, adoration, passion, treachery, and opportunities for misbehavior. Sources spread across the genres give us a glimpse into what kissing meant to medieval people: Danish king Hrothgar “kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck” when the hero departed after slaying Grendel. As Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, so did Lancelot and Guinevere betray Arthur. In the comical vignette from the Annals of St Denis, the Norse warrior Rollo refused to bow to kiss his liege lord Charles’ foot, and instead lifted the king’s foot to his mouth, “causing the king to tumble over backwards” to the ringing laughter of the crowd. It even appears in theological and ecclesiastical sources: though Thomas Aquinas condoned certain instances, the Council of Vienne tried to condemn kissing a woman as “a mortal sin since nature does not incline one to it”—though sexual intercourse was deemed perfectly natural! What made medieval people pucker up?
In Latin, the general term for a kiss was literally “little mouth” (osculum), positioning the kiss as a seal, an externalization of one’s spoken vows or intentions. It was about exchange and union. In the feudal era, one foundational use of the kiss was to formalize a transaction. At a standard homage or commendation ceremony, in which lords and vassals pledged mutual loyalty, the kiss was the reification of the oath, performed for all the witnesses of the ceremony. The Flemish chronicler Galbert of Bruges describes a homage ceremony in 1127. The process began with a spoken oath in which the vassal pledged to become the “man” of Count William, followed by the clasping of hands. After this, “they were bound together by a kiss.” Finally, “he who had done homage”—implying that the ritual was now completed—swore on saints’ relics (in other cases on the Gospels). In a society that privileged ritualistic action over the written word, the kiss served as the official performance of the spoken oath.
This act of kissing was so crucial to the legality of the traditional homage ceremony that omitting it threatened to render the pledge null and void. In a 1439 petition to King Henry VI, members of Parliament requested that the kiss be omitted due to the Black Death, an “infirmity most infective,” if the king “desir[es] the health and welfare” of his people and himself. They sought confirmation that even without the kiss to seal the deal, those performing homage could trust that “at your will the homage [would be] of the same force as though they kissed you.” This anxiety centers the kiss as the ultimate mark of legitimacy on the ritualized transaction—without which, Parliament feared, the act of homage would not hold up.
Despite a dramatically different meaning today, a medieval groom kissing his bride was borrowing from the same authenticating power of the kiss in homage ceremonies. In the thirteenth-century Sarum Missal (an English variation on the Roman rite), the author describes how to preside properly over a marriage. After reading the banns, double-checking any potential impediments to the pairing, and performing the appropriate liturgical steps, the priest should give the sign of peace to the groom, who then would repeat it to his bride and give her a kiss. Thus bound, “neither of them are to kiss anyone else.” Afterwards, the priest should bless the bedchamber that will be witness to the legally binding consummation of the marriage. Clearly less romantic than the jubilant “you may now kiss the bride” to which we are accustomed at weddings today, the use of the kiss in the medieval marriage rite again underscores its power of solemnization and legitimation.
Within medieval romances—both real and written—the kiss serves as a microcosm of the passions, appetites, and yearnings of a lover for his or her beloved. As the acme of pleasure, the kiss often resulted in downfall or death. In his History of my Misfortunes, Abelard contrasts his physical attraction to his student Heloise with his intellectual endeavors, juxtaposing the sweetness of a kiss with the thrill of study. He writes, “with our books open before us, we exchanged more words of love than of lessons, more kisses than concepts.” Enervated by the love spawned from these kisses, Abelard’s famously brilliant lectures grew “lukewarm and slack.” The end of their love story is well known: Abelard is castrated and Heloise enters the convent.
Nearly two centuries later, when Dante encounters the noblewoman Francesca in Inferno, he learns that merely reading about the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot triggered the actions that ultimately condemned her and her brother-in-law Paolo to the second circle of hell, where carnal lust is punished. In a scene that echoes Abelard and Heloise’s textual/sexual encounter, Francesca describes how “one moment alone…overcame us…when we read how that longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one [Paolo], who never shall be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling…that day we read no farther…” Paolo’s brother finally discovered their secret and killed them both, relegating the lovers to an eternity of being buffeted by “warring winds” and “hellish hurricane[s]”—a dire price to pay for an affair begun by a clandestine kiss.
Within a courtly love context, the kiss was the ultimate gift that a lady could bestow upon her lover. Troubadour poetry is rife with longing for this sweet reward, which may never be accorded: one poet yearns to “kiss her mouth in such a way / it would show for a month and a day.” (For those who overindulged in smooching, the medical compendium Trotula advises a salve made from fleawort or lilies to assuage chapped lips!) The famous trobairitz (female troubadour) the Comtessa de Dia lords her love over her “sweet friend” by hinting that she might “grant [him] kisses amorous” in the dark cover of the night until “he’d think himself in paradise.”
This gifted kiss can both wound and heal. One poet begs his beloved to “soothe [my] pain and sorrow with a kiss” when his love makes his heart painfully “crackle and flare.” Another writes:
Lady, for whom I sing and more,
Your lips wounded me to the core,
With a sweet kiss of love heart-true,
Grant joy, save me from mortal sorrow too.
Alongside the overt sensuality and eroticism, this romantic kiss also acts as a promise of fidelity, broken only at the lover’s peril. Borrowing from the homage ceremony, the lover puts himself in the subordinate role to his beloved, who plays the lord to his vassal. A female-voiced chanson d’amour highlights this elision between love and loyalty:
…I, who am a loyal friend,
Cannot find any love in my friend.
In the past I received a kiss from him.
I put him under the jurisdiction of my love.
If there are those who kiss without loving,
By a kiss, one betrays one’s lovers well.
Such kisses are inverted and lampooned in the fabliaux, bawdy tales where most kisses land crudely on the protagonist’s nether regions. In Guérin’s account of “Long Butthole Berengier,” a peasant-knight is forced to bestow a “filthy kiss of peace” on bent-over Berengier (actually his wife in disguise), a demand designed to humiliate and debase him. Chaucer offers a similar kiss in The Miller’s Tale, where the cleric Absalom gets his osculatory comeuppance for his risible pursuit of Alison. Recognizing a chance to steal a kiss, Absalom, whose “mouth’s been itching all this livelong day,” slinks to Alison’s house in the dark only to lay a smack on her “nether eye.”
Quite at the opposite end of the spectrum, the kiss in the Middle Ages served as a gateway to the mystical divine. Bishops bestowed the holy kiss upon recipients of sacraments like baptism, penitential absolution, and ordination. Christians kissed relics, icons, episcopal rings, and the liturgical pax (a board decorated with sacred imagery that was offered before parishioners received communion). In Mecca, in imitation of Muhammed, Muslims kissed the holy relic of the Black Stone on the Ka’aba. Jewish worshippers at a synagogue kissed the mantle of the Torah. In each case, the mouth communicated reverence and humility.
For Bernard of Clairvaux, the kiss was the highest attainable union with Christ. In his 86-sermon collection on the Song of Songs, the Cistercian mystic hinges his ecstatic musings on the bride’s plea to her bridegroom: “‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’” (Song of Songs 1:2). More than a joining of lips or hearts, the kiss of Christ’s mouth is revelation, sublimation, and rhapsody. Bernard distinguishes three hierarchically arranged kisses in the approach to union with Christ. Rather than “rashly aspir[ing] to the lips of a most benign Bridegroom,” worshippers must begin in penitence by kissing Christ’s feet, and then ascend to kiss his hands to “give glory to his name.” Only then are they worthy for “the most intimate kiss of all, a mystery of supreme generosity and ineffable sweetness.” This, of course, is the kiss of the mouth. In a dizzying rapturous crescendo, Bernard states that Christ’s
living, active word is to me a kiss, not indeed an adhering of the
lips that can sometimes belie a union of hearts, but an unreserved
infusion of joys, a revealing of mysteries, a marvelous and
indistinguishable mingling of the divine light with the enlightened mind,
which, joined in truth to God, is one spirit with him.
Like an unsatisfied lover, “anyone who has received this mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ…seeks again that intimate experience, and eagerly looks for its frequent renewal.”
Bernard’s contemporary, the mystical abbess Hildegard of Bingen, bridges the external and internal through the kiss:
The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
Another mystic, Angela of Foligno, related a vision in which she was “in ecstasy” in the tomb with Christ on Holy Saturday, between his Crucifixion and Resurrection. In consummate intimacy, she “kissed his mouth from which she received a wonderful and indescribably delightful odor breathing forth” as Christ revealed the extent of his love for her. Similarly, the Sufi mystic Rumi frames all of human desire in the embodied terms of a kiss:
There is some kiss we want with our whole lives, the touch of spirit on the body.
The eroticism associated with high medieval mystical traditions encapsulates both the understanding of a kiss as an expression of hunger for supreme union in love, and as a sacred and ritual mark of achieving those spiritual gains.
A multivalent act, both flexible and formal, to kiss in the Middle Ages was to position oneself vis-à-vis another. By binding a legal or marital transaction with a kiss, one emphasized the mutual exchange of oaths and trust. By kissing a shoe or hem of a superior’s cloak, or by planting lips on a cross or Gospel book, one could display deference, respect, and veneration. By deigning to bestow a kiss on a lover, one could subvert mores or gender roles, all the while retaining the upper hand. And there are still manifold categories of kisses not discussed here: erotic same-sex kisses, kisses of homage between a celibate monk and a noblewoman, illicit kisses between those who professed to the religious life, parents’ kisses conferred on their children, &c. The closer we examine medieval references to kisses, the more the simple touching of lips unspools into layered, complicated, and ambiguous practice and meaning—each example more compelling to unpack than the last.
Dr. Christine Axen is a medievalist specializing in thirteenth-century Southern French religious history. She is a guide at the Met Cloisters and runs a weekly public history lecture series, History Happy Hour. She currently teaches at St John’s University in Queens, NY. You can follow Christine on Twitter @historyhappyhrs
Nicholas James Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretative History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes (University of California Press, 1969)
Karen Harvey, ed., The Kiss in History (Manchester UP/Palgrave, 2005)