An Awkward History of Kissing


A drawing of pursed lips in the quintessential kiss shape.

Psychology Today is a magazine and website that aims to popularize psychology. It’s a good thing, too, as the more people get interested in this science topic, the better. The website also hosts a blog, where this article written by Neel Burton, caught my interest. It’s titled “The History of Kissing.” As a history enthusiast, that sounded right up my alley.

Sadly, I was disappointed. The subtitle hinted at a discussion between learned and natural behavior, with surprising evidence. Now to cut a long story short, no such evidence is presented or discussed in this article. It starts with a paragraph about some cultures not kissing, and refers to a scientific discussion about where kissing might have come from. It sounds a lot like a rehash of the opening paragraphs from Wikipedia’s kiss article, but there are no references to it (though other references are provided).

The author then delves into ancient texts on kissing, referring to Homer, the Kama Sutra (yes, that one), the Song of Songs from the Bible, Roman poetry from Ovid and Catullus. All in all, interesting, and I like the citations of the original texts (which are referenced, too). The author then moves into the Middle Ages, stating that after the fall of Rome the romantic kiss disappeared for 1,000 years, only to return at the end of the 11th century. He proceeds to state that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is emblematic of this movement.

Did you catch the errors yet? First of all, the time between the 5th-century fall of Rome to the 11th century is not 1,000 years. You can give some leeway between the fall of Rome and Shakespeare, as it is over 1,100 years, but you cannot say that a play from around 1595 is emblematic for a movement starting in the 11th century without at least some explanation. But the biggest error of all: what did the author base this speculation on? Again, no references and no original research are provided. I don’t mean to say the speculation is wrong; it could very well be correct. An article at The Daily Beast mentions that kissing was primarily a demonstration of social standing in that period.

USSR General Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev exchanging the Socialist Fraternal Kiss with German Democratic Republic General Secretary Erich Honecker in 1979. Via Wikimedia.

USSR General Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev exchanging the Socialist Fraternal Kiss with German Democratic Republic General Secretary Erich Honecker in 1979. Via Wikimedia.

Worst of all, the article ends there. That’s right, no return on the subtitle, no conclusion based on the historical texts mentioned. A history of kissing doesn’t just end with Shakespeare, I would at least expect the Socialist fraternal kiss to be mentioned (and furthermore it makes for a nice visual when you see Honecker and Brezhnev going at it).

I was browsing around the website to see if there was maybe a follow-up article. To my dismay, I found an article by the same author, titled “Why Do We Kiss?,” published in March of this year. It was almost the same article—more than 90% was exactly the same. This means that copied his article from February 2014 and republished it one year later with some editing changes and a new title. And still it makes no sense. Disappointing, to say the least, as that is not the way to popularize science.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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3 Responses to An Awkward History of Kissing

  1. David Tyler says:

    If you look at the advertising section in Psychology Today, you get an idea about the type of person they are selling to. It is no surprise that the articles drawing those readers are more about appearance than substance.

  2. alvin turner says:

    why do you think the Wikipeida article preceded the one you are discussing and not vice versa?

  3. SwampWitch7 says:

    Of interest:

    The person most likely to kiss a pet is a married man aged 45-55.

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