Cloved lemon

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Cloved lemons, also referred to as Cloven lemons or Clove lemons, are often handed around at feasts or camping events. Love it or hate it, the Cloved lemon kissing game is a tradition that is engrained in SCA culture, and has been adopted by other groups, including Discordians and Harmonians. In most of the USA Kingdoms the use of cloved lemons had fallen out of favor, but seems to be enjoying a resurgence.

Cloved Lemons in Practise

Here's what happens:

Someone approaches you with a cloved lemon. You can do one of several things.

  1. Take the cloved lemon.
  2. Politely refuse the cloved lemon.

If you choose option 1, you take a clove out of the fruit with your teeth (or occasionally fingers - see local customs). The taste of the clove will be very strong. Stronger if you bite on it, and may make your whole mouth go numb. The clove is anecdotely supposed to freshen your breath. You (or possibly the lady) then indicate to the person who gave you the fruit where to kiss you (check local customs) - often the hand, cheek or lips, it depends on your comfort level with the person who gave it to you. You then find another victim - oops! person to pass it on to.

If you choose option 2, and there is NO shame at all in doing this. It is not impolite to refuse a cloved lemon, and your decision is respected (and often understandable). There is, of course, the other option - whenever you hear mention of a cloved lemon being passed around, to just avoid it like the Plague and hide somewhere.

Also, note that custom may vary depending on where you are (see section below). It can be quite important to find out what the local variants are, or you may find yourself embarrassed with more attention than expected. Feel free to indicate verbally what level of intimacy you are comfortable with.

Why do we use cloved lemons?

In many cultures in the SCA's period, you wouldn't wander up to a stranger and introduce yourself. You were introduced by a third party. This is a little too rigid for our modern society. So in some sense, we have taken the third party and made it a lemon.

How did this get made up?

There's plenty of mythology about this. There is little doubt that the medjeeval cloved lemon kissing game was created in the 20th Century (in 1974, some say), but it strikes a resonance because it bears some simularity to a few period items and practises, just enough that people keep trying to search for the period origins of this practise.

In a French custom from the time of the Crusades, a knight could impress a lady by giving her a citrus fruit, often a lemon, that was pierced by whole cloves. Both citrus fruit and cloves were extremely expensive, so it made an impressive gift.

According to Alexandre sur le Mer, this practice was an inspiration for Alizaunde de Breguef, who may have made the first cloved lemon for kissing in A. S. VIII. This was in the Canton of the Towers, Barony of Carolingia of the East Kingdom.

The cloved lemon is sometimes referred to as a "cloven lemon," which would literally mean a lemon that is split.

While this phrase seems to be an error, this usage may be a reference to an original source. In William Shakespeare's comedy Love's Labour's Lost, first published in 1598, the following dialog is found in Act V, Scene II (numbers indicate lines in the play):

672 The armipotent Mars, of lances the almighty,
673 Gave Hector a gift,--

674 A gilt nutmeg.

675 A lemon.

676 Stuck with cloves.

677 No, cloven.

Local customs within the SCA

  • In some areas of Lochac (noted in NSW colleges) significance is given to different varieties of cloved fruit. For example cloved grapes, cloved watermelons, cloved bananas. The various fruit are supposedly symoblic of different sexual acts (as the lemon is to kissing), although this is likely more for teasing value than a serious proposition. In other places, different types of cloved fruit are used just for variety.
  • There are two traditions about who gets to choose the location of a kiss - is it the lady of the pair, or the recipient of the lemon. The first is more chivalric towards ladylike ladies, but allows them to exploit vulnerable males. The second is more useful in our modern world where a lady is as likely to receive a lemon from another lady as from a man, and appears to be the most commonly used. Enquire locally.
  • In one area (unknown) significance is given to the way the clove is removed from the lemon
  1. Remove a clove from the lemon orally & swallow it.
  2. Remove a clove from the lemon orally & bite it, but not swallow.
  3. Remove a clove from the lemon orally & neither bite nor swallow it.
  4. Remove a clove from the lemon manually.

Option 1 indicates that you expect the giver to attempt to retrieve the clove (a more intimate kiss than some may be interested in). Option 2 generally indicates a rather friendly kiss on the mouth than option 3. Option 4 indicates a kiss on the hand may be expected.

Related practises

  • Citrus may have been covered in spices to serve as a pomander
  • Citrus fruit were expensive gifts in the 12th to 14th century, as they were not native to Europe, rather luxuries brought back by Crusaders
  • Cloves may have been used to sweeten the breath in medieval times (proof needed)
  • Kissing games did occur in medieval times.