Today is International Kissing Day. In June, on National Kissing Day (UK), I spread some misery instead of joy with a sad tale of a kiss. But kisses weren’t always so terrible. A quick search of the database reveals that men in the Republic of Letters were no strangers to sealing their letters with a kiss. Well… at least referring to kisses in their letters! Such letters highlight that eighteenth-century kissing was as much about gratitude and submission as friendship for then men of the Royal Society.
Richard Waller in 1696 wrote to apologise that he was proving a poor Royal Society secretary because he could so rarely come into London for the meetings. He did, nonetheless, promise that when he next saw Sloane, he “will not fail to kiss [Sloane’s] hand”. The letter expresses gratitude to Sloane who has been taking on the bulk of the secretarial work. In some ways, this seems equivalent to the modern “I could just kiss you”. But hand-kissing had a more significant meaning in early modern Europe than simple affection and gratitude: to kiss someone’s hand was a form of submission. Waller’s gratitude was great indeed!
The reference to kissing in the letter of George Bennis suggests that Sloane was becoming an important patron relatively early in his career. Bennis—who otherwise left little mark on the Republic of Letters or Royal Society—wrote in 1698 that he had waited on Sloane several times, but had not been able to speak with him. As Bennis now needed to return to Ireland, he instead left Sloane some botanical samples along with the letter. In particular, Bennis noted his regret at being unable to kiss Sloane’s hand. Bennis’ kiss was one of deference to a potential patron, and another Irish man who had managed to make it big in Britain.
But sometimes a kiss is a mark of true friendship. A letter from well-known botanist William Sherard in 1699 referred to kissing within the context of friendship. The two men had several close mutual acquaintances (John Ray and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, for example) and their correspondence over time shows a mutual interest in each other’s projects and lives. In this letter, he mentioned his excitement at returning home from Paris, along with various details about book buying and auctions. In addition to promising Sloane that he would make some purchases for him, Sherard exlaimed that he couldn’t wait to kiss Sloane’s hand very soon.
So far I have only found a handful of references to kisses in the Sloane correspondence, either in the database or in the manuscripts. This might be a function of data selection; a seemingly casual reference to kissing might easily be overlooked as a pro forma statement that didn’t need to be noted. That said, an early eighteenth-century guide to letter-writing, The Secretary’s Guide (1705), does not provide any samples between men that mention hand-kissing.The infrequency of kissing references suggests that any ones mentioned in Sloane’s letters are meaningful.
One thing is clear: we need to pay attention to these tiny details. A kiss was never just a kiss in the Republic of Letters .