Monday, September 28, 2020

Erasmus's World of Kisses and Ruskin's Chastity

This is about culture change, specifically about how attitudes in a single country may change over time, sometimes remarkably. Many of us associate Victorian England with prudery. Women were supposed to dress and behave modestly. They were to defer to their husbands in their opinions. They were largely restricted to the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. Men were supposed to maintain an outgoing, chivalrous deportment. They were the breadwinners and protectors.

Self-portrait of John Ruskin. The Victorian art critic was an excellent draftsman and skilled painter. Yet his greatest contribution to art may have been as an "influencer." His support for such painters as Turner and the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Millais, helped bring them fame.  

Of course, we know that men, especially affluent men, had secret lives. Many had liaisons with mistresses and prostitutes. Yet, sexual matters were not to be discussed in polite company, particularly between the sexes. Victorianism at its most extreme might best be illustrated by the marriage of the influential art critic, John Ruskin, to the much younger Effie Gray. Although the union lasted five years, the couple never had sex. The story goes that on the wedding night Ruskin was disgusted to find that Effie had pubic hair. He was familiar with the nudes of classical sculpture, but not with flesh and blood nakedness. In the midst of this unhappy relationship, Ruskin commissioned the painter, John Everett Millais, to do his portrait. Effie and Millais fell in love. Effie sued to have her marriage annulled. She succeeded largely because the union had never been consummated. Effie went on to wed Millais. By all accounts, they—and their children—lived happily ever after. I call on this anecdote as an illustration of a straight-laced, prudish element of late 19th-century England. 

Accounts of English society during the reign of Henry VIII provide a vivid contrast. One of these accounts comes from the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher-scholar who traveled among the courts of Europe. His collection of Apothegms consists of thousands of “old sayings” that he traces to classical times. These volumes might qualify as the original bedside readers if they were not so cumbersome! 

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) 

At the age of thirty-three, Erasmus visited England for the first time. He was smitten by English culture, which his letters reveal to be far different than the culture of Ruskin’s England. Erasmus wrote enthusiastically to the poet Faustus Andrelinus, entreating his friend to join him in England.

Why are you so complacently burying your wit among French dunghills while you turn into an old man?... If you were fully aware of what England has to offer, you would rush hither, I tell you, on winged feet… There is one custom that can never be commended too highly. When you arrive anywhere, you are received with kisses on all sides, and when you take your leave they speed you on your way with kisses. The kisses are renewed when you come back. When guests come to your house, their arrival is pledged with kisses; and when they leave kisses are shared once again. If you should happen to meet, then kisses are given profusely. In a word, wherever you turn, the world is full of kisses…

This “world full of kisses” sounds nothing like the proper Victorian world. It extended into the reign of Elizabeth I, where kissing was particularly popular on the dance floor. Accounts of a dance, nicknamed “Kissum,” describe participants kissing every dancer of the other sex. These may sometimes have been mere pecks on the cheek, but full-on-the-mouth kisses were not uncommon. After a particular round ended, couples would retire to the sideline where we are told, they would sit—the young man on his partner’s lap—to exchange endearments and to kiss some more!

Yet the seeds of Victorianism were already being planted. Kissing of all sorts was popular in the Catholic Church, from kissing the prelate’s ring to kissing the bones of dead saints. Elsewhere in his letters from England, Erasmus describes touring a religious site where he and a companion were expected to kiss relics, including the still-bloody arm of a reputed martyr. Then, too, there was the kissing going on in Rome among the clergy and their mistresses. It was opposition to such behavior that fed the Reformation and lent power to Puritanism, which flowered over the next century and no doubt helped shape Victorian England.


The Persistence of Dutch in America


The Persistence of the Dutch Language in America

To hear Americans complain that many Spanish-speaking immigrants are “refusing” to learn English just adds to the evidence that the “United States of Amnesia” is an apt nickname for this country. Rarely has any immigrant group given up its natal language in fewer than two generations. Historically, several of America’s most significant ethnic groups held onto their “mother tongue” for far longer. I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, which touches the Hudson Valley region originally settled by immigrants from the Netherlands—the Dutch—so let me start with them.  

In 1624, the Dutch established New Amsterdam at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The English took the colony from the Netherlands in 1664. Nearly a hundred years later, the Dutch language was still being spoken in the Hudson Valley “fairly extensively,” according to historian John Higham. One history of New York, published in 1756, stated that "the sheriffs find it difficult to obtain persons sufficiently acquainted with the English tongue to serve as jurors in the Courts of law." 

Before the Revolution, newspapers regularly carried advertisements for the sale of indentured and enslaved people. Sometimes, bounties were offered for runaway captives. These notices often indicated the runaway’s proficiency in Dutch. In fact, the famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth, born around 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, spoke Dutch as her first language. Truth had grown up on a farm in the Hudson Valley only a few miles away from Kinderhook, the birthplace of Martin Van Buren. Born in 1782, Van Buren would become America’s eighth president.

Despite his family having lived in America for five generations, Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch. He was our first president to speak English as a second language, but his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was raised in a household where Gaelic may have been spoken. Jackson’s parents were immigrants from Ireland. In an early instance of “birtherism,” his critics slandered Jackson as having been brought to America as an infant and not actually born here. Had this been true, Jackson would not have been constitutionally eligible to become president.

More than a century after the English had taken control over the colony of New York, local communities operated schools offering instruction in Dutch, but English schools were displacing them, prompting geographer Jedidiah Morse to predict that the Dutch language would likely disappear “in a few generations.” Morse was not far wrong. While English had generally displaced Dutch by the beginning of the 1800s, visitors to the Hudson Valley were still commenting that Dutch had “corrupted” the English spoken there, and old people in a few northern New Jersey communities were said to speak a peculiar dialect called “Bergen Dutch.”

Of course, “Dutch” is also what many Americans called immigrants who spoke German, such as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” who came from Switzerland. Today, more Americans trace their ancestry to Germany than from any other country. How German-speakers actively sought to keep the mother tongue alive in America is perhaps the best example of immigrant language preservation and a story for another time.

Portraits of Sojourner Truth and Martin Van Buren from, respectively, the National Museum of Women's History and