You might know Geoffrey Chaucer from Canterbury Tales, but he’s also the first to name-drop St. Valentine, and link the name to love and mating.
Chaucer wrote a dream vision poem, Parliament of Fowls (circa 1381-1382) that’s a perfect match for this love-drunk modern phenomenon of Valentine’s Day.
It’s about the very romantic notion that birds in the wild find their mates this time of year. It’s the day when birds propose, and commit to making a nest together.
As an English major, I took a Medieval Lit class and labored over Chaucer’s Middle English. Here in this modern translation, like jumping to the Cliff Notes, you read the narrative of Nature herself:
You know that on Saint Valentine’s day,
By my statute and through my governance,
You come to choose – and then fly your way –
Your mates, as I your desires enhance.
Season of Longing
With the festival of Imbolc, that begins the month, we are at the mid-point between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
We are weary of winter, and eagerly looking for signs of Spring. A color for Imbolc is red, as it is with Valentine’s Day, the color of vitality, the heart’s blood and erotic passion.
Here’s more from a modern translation of Parliament of Fowls, which is set on a hill, near the Temple of Venus.
Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –
Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this winter’s weather does off-shake.
Isn’t it natural to look with a hopeful heart for signs of the coming warmth this time of year? And with it, comes the Springtime passion for life, the surge of vitality, that lies ahead?
More Valentine’s Day Curiosities
Who sent the first Valentine? Legend gives that honor to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who sent it while imprisoned in the Tower of London, in 1415. He wrote romantic verses for his wife, that can now be viewed in the British Museum.
Where did the XXX for kisses come from? You know how in olden times, when people who couldn’t write their name, made an X? To show they meant it, people would seal it with a kiss, with witnesses present. (This comes from the Farmer’s Almanac.)
The over-the-top holiday has lead to a backlash of humor. Here’s one, as seen on an e-card. “Today is Single’s Awareness Day, but Chin Up, Tomorrow is Half-Price Candy Day!”
The flower of the goddess of love Aphrodite (Greece) and Venus (Roman) in myth is the red rose. And, in keeping with the known legends of Saint Valentine, it’s also the flower of martyrs.
In Finland and Estonia, February 14th is “Friend’s Day,” a celebration of friendship.
In Wales, men carve love-spoons out of wood, with symbolic features like a key (to the heard), wheels (of his labor) and beads (for the children he’d like to have). In Ireland, a traditional gift is a bag of flour (which I received once from an Irishman).
Saints and Pagans
The origins of Valentine’s Day is super speculative, and might not even be related, though it’s unclear why Chaucer used that name in a poem. It’s quite possible that it’s only revisionist eyes that reached back into ancient Rome and the legends of the actual Saint (or Saints) named Valentine.
And from the pagan angle, there’s the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility and purification rite, and February itself is a month for purification. It seems a seasonal echo across cultures, since the Northern European festival of Imbolc (early February) is also one of purification, fertility and the very first signs of Spring.