Chaucer and Valentine’s Day

The Invention of Love …

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Because of the rampant commercialism associated with the holiday, Valentine’s Day is considered a “Hallmark holiday,” a day selected by a blindfolded intern at Hallmark HQ and pegged as one we consumers are told to celebrate by spending. It isn’t.

In the grocery store last week, the center of which is holiday-red right now and overstuffed with heart-shaped balloons and streamers, as if the store manager himself demanded a ticket-tape parade for Cupid, I walked past a fellow shopper who, shaking her head, declared out loud, “Valentine’s Day! Already?” because that is what we say when we view holiday decorations in stores nowadays. (Each reminder of time’s passage is responded to as a newly experienced emotional trauma in our culture, each time we encounter it.) It was February 10, the decorations had been up in this particular store since January 2, and there was no hint of irony in the person’s exclamation.

Starting in the late 1700s, publishers started to print and sell Valentine’s Day-oriented books, usually guides for young men to use in composing their love notes. On this much, most cultural historians seem to agree. The disagreements begin with who Valentine might have been and why February 14 is his feast day and extend to the question about what any of this has to do with chalky heart-shaped candies and smooching.

February 14 has been the date on which the Roman Catholic Church honors Saint Valentine since the Early Middle Ages, since 496 A.D. But even the early Church historians who wrote in the fifth century, describe Valentine as a martyr about whom little was known, “whose acts are known only to God,” but who died near Rome on February 14 in the third century. Early on in its history, there might have been other Valentines whose lives the Church celebrated on this day, but officially it is one Saint Valentine who is commemorated today, a martyr slain in 269 A.D. but “whose acts are known only to God.”

It is in the uncertain connection between love and romance and the ancient martyred Valentine(s) that our current red candy-hearts beat ever-harder every February 14. Almost nine hundred years after February 14 became Saint Valentine’s Day, Geoffrey Chaucer mentions it in his poem, The Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls/Birds), composed in the 1380s.

In the poem, the narrator falls asleep while he searches his books for a “certeyn thing.” He dreams he is is brought to an annual meeting (parliament) of birds, at which they comically hold a debate to win mates for themselves, with Nature herself the arbiter. In introducing the debate, Chaucer writes: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

This line is the one most often cited as the first mention in literature of Valentine’s Day as a day for wooing and courting, though the blog “Interesting Literature” a few years ago reminded its readers that three of Chaucer’s friends also wrote of Valentine’s Day as a day for love in their own poems. So perhaps there was a literary convention of “Valentine’s Day = love” already in place by the 1380s, and Chaucer is the writer who most spectacularly popularized it, such that we are giving cards to each other today.

“Interesting Literature” also speculates about what date Chaucer might have meant for Valentine’s Day, as birds do not often mate in England in February. The writer points out that:

Artistic licence is obviously a factor here, and 14 February was already established as the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine. And yet some scholars, Henry Ansgar Kelly among them, have proposed that Chaucer was actually referring to 3 May, a date on which Valentine of Genoa, a bishop who died around AD 307, was commemorated. Another fact adds credence to the 3 May theory: it was on this date in 1381 that the engagement of Richard II (Chaucer’s patron) to Anne of Bohemia was announced. Chaucer possibly wrote his poem the following year to mark the one-year anniversary of the betrothal.

This is where mere controversy becomes a storm in literary circles. Where can one find the connection between Saint Valentine, his feast day, and romance?

In recent centuries the idea that Christian feast days were installed in the calendar to supplant pagan holidays gained credence and then lost credence in yet more recent scholarship. It was thought that the celebration of Valentine’s Day replaced the Lupercalia, a purity and fertility festival held in Rome every February 13-15. Not only do these dates coincide neatly with our February holiday, but the pope under whom Saint Valentine’s Day was first celebrated is the same pope who did the most to end what remained of the Lupercalia in Rome, Pope Gelasius 1.

In one portion of the annual riotous Lupercalian festivities, young men dressed in the skins of sacrificed goats and ran through the streets of Rome carrying short whips, and women who desired blessings of fertility would stand in the streets to be whipped. In a dispute with conservative senators who fought to preserve what remained of the traditional ways (even though they were now Christian), Gelasius wrote that if the senators were so committed to celebrating the Lupercalia they should run naked through the streets themselves. (For this reply to senators who intended to keep a tradition for tradition’s sake—the more things change, the more they do not—Gelasius is among my favorite popes.)

It seems an “Aha!” connection between fertility and young cupid-with-an-arrow Valentine’s Day love, but fertility was only a part of the Lupercalia. It was a purification festival, celebrated with sacrifices. Current scholarship says that if Gelasius replaced the purification rites of the Lupercalia with anything, it was with Candlemas, the celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary, celebrated in early February.

Back to where we started. Where did the connection between wooing and courting birds and Valentine’s Day chocolates originate? As the writer for “Interesting Literature” notes, “perhaps Chaucer ‘invented’—or at any rate helped to popularise—Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance. It’s just that he possibly had a different date marked on his calendar for Valentine’s Day.”

It may be Geoffrey Chaucer’s fault that we give one another an extra sugar rush of love on this day of all days. The great poet did not suggest that Valentine himself is the patron saint of lovers, he offered a dream in which the season of wooing and courting, the eternal annual debate of love, opens on this particular date in February.

At the end of The Parlement of Foules, the dreamer awakes and starts to read again, is still in a search for what he was looking for: “I hope in truth to read something someday / Such that I dream what brings me better fare,/ And thus my time from reading I’ll not spare.” Much like a scholar who wants to discover the origins of an ancient holiday and is foating somewhere between his dreams and books.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone, from Geoffrey Chaucer and me.

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A version of this first appeared three years ago.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 14 asks us to reflect on the word, “Expectation.” (If readers expected a post about Valentine’s Day.)

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