The Mysterious Origins of the Handshake
Shaking hands seems like a gesture that has been around forever. Indeed, a throne base from the reign of ancient Assyria's Shalmaneser III in the 9th century BCE clearly shows two figures clasping hands. The Iliad, usually dated to the 8th century BCE, mentions that two characters “clasped each other's hands and pledged their faith.” Centuries later, Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that two characters “shook hands and swore brothers.” It might seem like shaking hands is an ancient custom, the roots of which are lost to the sands of time.
Historians who have pored over old etiquette books have noticed that handshaking in the modern sense of a greeting doesn’t appear until the mid-19th century, when it was considered a slightly improper gesture that should only be used with friends [PDF]. But if Shakespeare was writing about shaking hands a few hundred years earlier, what happened?
Defining the Handshake
According to author Torbjörn Lundmark in his Tales of Hi and Bye: Greeting and Parting Rituals Around the World, the problem comes in differing definitions of the handshake. The early handshakes mentioned above were part of making deals or burying the hatchet; Shalmaneser III’s throne base references him honoring a treaty with the Babylonian king during a revolt. In the Iliad, Diomedes and Glaucus shook hands when they realized they were “guest-friends,” and Diomedes proclaimed “Let’s not try to kill each other.” Shakespeare was similarly referencing settlement of a conflict.
The modern handshake as a form of greeting is harder to trace. Traditionally, the origins are often given to the Quakers. But as Dutch sociologist Herman Roodenburg—the chief authority for the history of handshaking—wrote in a chapter of an anthology called A Cultural History of Gesture, “More than in any other field, that of the study of gesture is one in which the historian has to make the most of only a few clues” [PDF].
One of the earliest clues he cites is a 16th-century German translation of the French writer Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. When one character meets Gargantua, Rabelais writes (in one modern English translation), “he was greeted with a thousand caresses, a thousand embraces, a thousand good-days.” But according to Roodenburg, the 16th-century German translation adds references to shaking hands. Roodenburg argues that if the translator adapted Rabelais to his audience, that’s an indication for an early handshaking tradition.
There's additional evidence for a handshaking tradition in that era: In 1607 the author James Cleland (believed to have been a Scotsman living in England) proclaimed that instead of things like bowing down to everyone’s shoes and kissing hands, he’d rather “retaine our good olde Scottish shaking of the two right hands togither at meeting with an vncouered head" [PDF].
Handshaking—Back to the Future
A popular hypothesis suggests that Cleland’s statements against bowing were actually a wish to go back to a potentially very traditional (though poorly recorded) method of greeting in Europe. As the centuries progressed, handshaking was replaced by more ‘hierarchical’ ways of greeting—like bowing. According to Roodenburg, handshaking survived in a few niches, like in Dutch towns where they’d use the gesture to reconcile after disagreements. Around the same time, the Quakers—who valued equality—also made use of the handshake. Then, as the hierarchies of the continent weakened, the handshake re-emerged as a standard greeting among equals—the way it remains today.
Not everyone fell in love with the handshake, however. According to an article from December 1884, “the usage has found its way into other nations, but so contrary is it to their instinct, that, in France, for example, a society has been recently formed to abolish ‘le shake-hands’ as a vulgar English innovation.”
As for why shaking hands was deemed a good method of greeting, rather than some other gesture, the most popular explanation is that it incapacitates the right hand, making it useless for weapon holding. In the 19th century it was argued that shaking hands without removing gloves was quite rude and required an immediate apology. One 1870 text explains that this “idea would also seem to be an occult remnant of the old notion that the glove might conceal a weapon.”
Sadly, in a world where obscure Rabelais translations provide critical evidence, the true reason may remain forever elusive.