A Brief History
On July 16, 1439, the Parliament of King Henry VI of England issued a proclamation banning kissing.
This ban of something we now think of as being so personal was in response to yet another outbreak of plague. This particular plague was probably not the bubonic plague which caused an epidemic known as the Black Death in which entire populations were wiped out.
In those years, the word “plague” was a general term used to describe any infectious malady that spread rampantly.
So, was the Government getting involved in the personal matter of affection between two lovers or a man and his wife? Not really. In actuality the ban was more directed at ritual kissing and kissings of greetings, both of which had their origins in the Christian religion. One fitting excerpt from the New Testament reads, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”.
This “kiss of peace” became a traditional Christian greeting which still remains in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Most Protestant churches have done away with it after early reformist believed the practice would lead to one wanting to seek other pleasures of the flesh. In these churches and cultures, the ritualistic “kiss of peace” has been replaced by the handshake.
England in the Middle Ages, however, was still Catholic, and it was common, in fact encouraged, to kiss. Men kissed men, women kissed women and men, servants kissed the rings and feet of their lords, church parishioners kissed each other. Just like modern-day French are known to kiss each cheek upon greeting, the English of medieval times kissed as much and, unlike many of their contemporaries on the continent, often times on the mouth. Many foreigner visitors to England, including the Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, made delightful note of how they would be greeted by their English hostesses with a lip locking kiss.
Not yet understanding the concepts of hygiene and germs, it is actually quite remarkable that a government at this time would ban kissing to help stop the spread of a plague. The fact that many plagues are spread by vectors such as fleas and rats is beside the point. What is worthy of note is that someone in the Dark Ages narrowed (probably unknowingly) the spread of illness down to saliva rather than to simple close proximity.
It would be another 400 years before the first doctors would make the connection that it was germs, or rather bacteria, viruses and sometimes fungi, that spread illness from person to person when these germs are able to penetrate the body over wounds, cuts or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth or genitals.
The Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to make an association in the 1840s when at the clinics he worked for, he noticed that women in labor who were being treated by doctors had a much higher mortality rate than women giving birth with the help of midwives. He followed up on this discovery and realized it was because the doctors had often previously left autopsy rooms where they had worked on cadavers. He theorized they were introducing the women to “cadaverous” particles. He instructed all medical students under his supervision to wash their hands after performing autopsies, and the death rates plummeted. Later Semmelweis had all instruments that came into contact with women in labor washed, basically eradicating all cases of maternal mortality. Many established doctors, probably not wanting to admit that they themselves were the vectors that killed many of their patients, rejected Semmelweis’ theory, ridiculed him and continued to refuse to wash their hands. Such a response of snubbing new evidence because it goes against existing beliefs is now known as the “Semmelweis reflex” or the “Semmelweis effect”. Semmelweis was eventually dismissed and as the years went by sank more and more into insanity and died in an asylum.
It would not be until Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory of disease that the medical establishment finally accepted that germs were responsible for illness. This accomplishment helped pave the way for Joseph Lister who applied both the experiences of Semmelweis and the works of Pasteur to make surgery safer and to reduce the number of post-operative infections by sterilizing medical instruments and cleaning wounds.
Obviously a kiss is not all it takes to get sick 😉
And regularly washing one’s hands in the best thing one can do.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should handshaking be banned? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Wannan, Joanne. Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing. Running Press, 2010.