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.


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