Happy Valentine’s from Geoffrey Chaucer

There are approximately 2.3 (repeating) facts that mainstream media types know about Geoffrey of Chaucer, and one of them is that he is somehow responsible for Valentines Day. Exactly how he’s responsible for it, well that’s not one of the other 1 and 1/3 facts. So every year, the association between Chaucer and February 14 twists and morphs as it is passed from one reporter to another, then across the wikipedias and infopleases of the web, and then back to reporters for another cycle. And you end up with claims ranging from “Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day,” to “Chaucer invented St. Valentine,” to “Chaucer wrote the first Valentine,” to “Chaucer was the first CEO of Hallmark, Inc.”

So allow me to clear this one up. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls contains the first extant reference to “Saint Valentine’s Day” as an occasion for romance. This is that reference:

[...] ther sat a quene
That, as of light the somer-sonne shene
Passeth the sterre, right so over mesure
She fairer was than any creature.

And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make, (ll. 298-310)

Loosely translated:

There sat a queen who was more lovely by far than any other creature, just as the summer sun outshines the stars. This noble goddess Nature sat enthroned in a pavilion she had wrought of branches upon a flowered hill atop a meadow. And there was not any bird born of love that was not ready in her presence to hear her and receive her judgment. For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when all the birds of every kind that men can imagine come to choose their mates.

The word I bolded and italicised above, extant is key to properly understanding the Chaucer-Valentine connection, and for that matter, I think, to understanding Chaucer in general.

The Parliament of Fowls was probably written sometime in the late-1370′s to the late 1380′s,* in what we might call Chaucer’s “Dream Vision Period.” To say that Chaucer’s Parliament contains the first extant reference to a romantic Valentine’s Day means that no texts that can be dated earlier than the late 1380′s connect the Feast of St. Valentine to romance. This is not to say that there was no Feast of St. Valentine before Chaucer. In fact, we can say pretty certainly that there was. He’s the next major saint on the feast calendar after St. Scholastica, of Oxford massacre fame.**

Likewise, crediting Chaucer with the first extant reference does not necessarily mean that he was the originator of the tradition of doing romantic things (like… uh, mating your birds) on Valentine’s Day. It just means that no earlier references survive. To put it another way, the first time we can be sure that A-Rod was using steroids was in 2003, when he came up positive in that oops-wasn’t-that-supposed-to-be-anonymous? test. That doesn’t meant that the first time he used steroids was in 2003. It’s just the first concrete proof of his using them that survives to this day. And, similarly, The Parliament of Fowls proves that Chaucer used steroids as early as 1381 or so, but he might have been doping as far back as The Book of the Duchess. And other authors might have been doing it before him, but we lost their test results to the ravages of time.***

Ultimately, I think there’s a very good reason to suspect that there were, in fact, other roid-fueled courtly poets traditions connecting Valentine and romance that preceded Chaucer’s reference but which simply, for whatever reason, did not survive to the modern day. Chaucer is the sort of storyteller who builds his own stories out of cross-references to other works, works which he lovingly perverts in making the reference. This scene in the garden with Lady Nature, for example, is immediately preceded by a laundry-list of lovers said to adorn the walls of Venus’ temple: Callisto, Atlanta, Semiramis, Candace, Hercules, Byblis, Dido, Thisbe and Pyramus, Tristram and Isolt, Paris, Achilles, Helen, Cleopatra, Troilus (but weirdly, not Criseyde), Scylla, and Rhea Silvia–that is, he peppers his story of romantic love with a lot of names of people who you probably wouldn’t want to emulate in love, and throws in several who have absolutely nothing to do with romance just to make things good and confusing. And a scant two lines after the Valentine-reference, Chaucer-the-dreamer fobs the actual description of Nature’s beauty off on another author entirely by saying she was “exactly like how Alain describes her in the Complaint of Nature“**** and leaving it at that. Chaucer’s favorite term for himself, was not “author” but “compiler,” after all. He vastly preferred to use the already existing than to resort to the whole cloth.

Most of Chaucer’s work is only really good when you know the other works he’s referring to or quoting–and, more importantly, who he’s misrepresenting and misquoting. Chaucer is the sort of guy who would, were he alive today, be writing things like “As we all know, hard work is critical to success. No one knows this more than that famous man named Jed. He was a poor mountaineer, but he kept his family fed, now didn’t he? We must all work hard, or we will never be able to pack up our family and move to Beverly,***** because there are no shortcuts in life.”

If Chaucer’s is the first actual reference to St. Valentine in a romantic context, rather than just the first extant one, it is probably because he did something like intentionally picking a bad saint’s day for a holiday involving romance. As you may have heard, St. Valentine’s chief pre-Hallmark claim to fame was being beheaded, which I think we can all agree is a good bit less romantic than a box of chocolates. For this explanation to work, of course, we would have to believe that in between the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare–the next most famous romantic Valentine mentioner–someone misunderstood Chaucer’s original joke. Me, I’d take that bet.

*I’m going to skip discussion of the astrological argument for dating the Parliament. But if you want a more specific date, the narrower range is 1381-1383.
**The image above is taken from just such a feast calendar, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl D. 939. Incidentally, that’s probably not a valentine in his hand. As a martyr beheaded for refusing to renounce Christianity, Valentine is usually shown holding a Bible.
****The Alain joke is a little more obscure. In Alain’s famous portrait of Nature, she is wearing a garment on which is embroidered images of all the birds, from the eagle on down to the bat. The dreamer is thus misremembering his Alain of Lille because his birds are actual birds up in a tree, not pictures of birds upon a magical robe.
****I have always had my suspicions that “moral” Gower was chemically enhanced.
*****Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars.

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  • hugh

    A somewhat famous St. Valentine’s Day mentioner in between Chaucer and Shakespeare is Charles, duc d’Orleans (1394-1465). He has a cute rondel complaining about being single on Valentine’s day.

  • William Starbreaker

    Geoffrey Chaucer: the 14th century Alan Moore.

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  • Nasher

    The Wendish tribes in Saxony still celebrate a holiday called The Birds Wedding in early february. They were amongst the last pagans in europe. Perhaps Chaucer was refering to a pagan tradition that happened to fall on the same date as st valentines day.

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