Tuesday, February 11, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 8: And a Christian Martyr Becomes a Convivial Saint

 “This morning come up to my wife’s bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s Valentine, and it will cost me £5; but that I must have laid out if we had not been Valentines.”
—Samuel Pepys diary entry
14 February 1667

If you bemoan the commercialization of Valentine’s Day and the sense of obligation to buy a gift for your sweetheart, and assume that this is another one of those 20th century introductions, think again. By the 17th century, English upper class men were expected to not only buy gifts for their wives, but also for another woman they knew, whose name they drew, apparently not unlike the way people today draw names for exchanging gifts at Christmas.
And, as Pepys’s diary entry indicates, children were involved in the exchange early on as well, such as little Will with his homemade Valentine.
By the 17th century, the observation of Valentine’s Day was thriving in English popular culture, with the wealthier classes buying increasingly elaborate gifts according to their income level, and the peasants drawing names for the purpose of partying together, with some mind to the possibility that this year’s Valentine could eventually become one’s spouse. Clergyman Henry Bourne disapprovingly described the practice in 1725:
“It is a ceremony, never omitted among the [lower classes], to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine-day. ... Everyone draws a name, which ... is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.” (Quoted in Schmidt, see source below.)
After Chaucer and the Valentine poets who followed him in the 15th century, the church increasingly lost control of its saint, as his role changed from that of an intermediary between men and God to that of ambassador between men and women. Humanities prof. Leigh Eric Schmidt writes, “Some ambitious interpreters tried to salvage the church’s martyr by merging him with the lover’s saint,” and dates the emergence of stories that are familiar today, about performing illegal marriages or writing affectionate letters to his jail keeper’s daughter, to the 18th century.
It’s the aristrocracy we have to blame for the consumerist spin that has overtaken the holiday. Not only did they have the means to make the exchange of Valentine gifts common practice, but they were also literate, though not always as talented as their forebears, the likes of Chaucer, Lydgate, and d’Orléans, who are credited with first promulgating the Valentine poetry tradition.
The obligation to praise one’s Valentine in verse form eventually led to what Schmidt describes as “the wider circulation of greetings, love poems, and doggerel on St. Valentine’s Day.”
But we can thank the classes who couldn’t afford to give each other gifts and didn’t know how to write insipid verse for interjecting the more playful and romantic aspects of the holiday, what Schmidt describes as “a day of matchmaking and conviviality.”
“Although not wholly shorn of his religious roots, St. Valentine flourished in both court and countryside as a patron of sociability and pairing games. Popular customs of drawing lots, fortune-telling, drinking, and doling coexisted with elite traditions of courtly poetry and gift giving,” he writes.
We may no longer associate St. Valentine with pious religious acts or the sufferings of a Christian martyr, but how many of the other dozen or so saints whose days once appeared on the February calendar do you see commemorated there today?



Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 28, No. 4 (winter 1993). pp. 209-245. Univ. of Chicago Press. (Accessed fromJSTOR database via Hennepin County Library online.) 

Monday, February 10, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 7: A Poetic English Monk and a French Duke with Time on his Hands

Charles d'Orléans, penning a Valentine while being held captive in England
“At the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400, the transformation of [Saint] Valentine into an auxiliary or parallel to Cupid as sponsor of lovers was well under way,” wrote Prof. Oruch in his article on Chaucer and Valentine’s Day that I have cited in several previous posts (see source below).

And so it is that references to Valentine in love poems begin to show up in works penned after Chaucer’s A Parlement of Foules, which Oruch has argued (convincingly) is the first work on record to associate the saint with lovers.
Soon people in England and France were referring to the objects of their affection as their Valentines, and this term was applied as much in a friendly and playful way as it was to mean one’s lover.
It was the poet-monk John Lydgate (ca. 1370–ca. 1450), a great admirer of Chaucer, who appears to be the first one to use the word Valentine for this type of poem, postulates Oruch, in the work A Valentine to Her that Excelleth All, a tribute to the Virgin Mary.
Later, when Lydgate published a series of poems based on the calendar and the various saints honored therein, he again employed the word Valentine to express his admiration for them, ending with “I choose all saints to my Valentine.”
Another Valentine influencer was Charles, the Duke of Orléans, who spent 24 years as a prisoner of war in Engand, after the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415. He made the best of his captivity by writing poetry. In reality, he wasn’t exactly languishing in the Tower, but rather was the “guest” of various English noblemen. He wrote poems in French and also in English, in both the ballade and rondeau forms, and his English poetry was apparently quite sophisticated, described as fitting somewhere between the medieval and Renaissance style (according to Wikipedia).
Several of Orléans’ works were Valentine poems, both in English and French, and, according to Oruch, one of the rondeaux in particular stands out as the first reference to some sort of Valentine’s Day lottery, or drawing of names to match up Valentines. This was not a salacious pairing; Orléans was a prisoner in England and his Valentine in this case was his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Rohan in France. This was more reflective of the courtly love tradition that started in medieval France, all about praising the virtues of some noblewoman. (I’m not saying that nothing untoward ever took place in that tradition, but it wasn’t ostensibly about hanky panky.)
Orléans must have had plenty of time on his hands during his 24 years in England, and Oruch thinks he was probably the first person to take such an interest in Valentine poetry, and influential enough “to make life imitate art.”
As a high-born and well-connected French nobleman—and did I mention he had lots of idle time?—he could, Oruch writes, “call upon his friends and followers to celebrate the day and to write Valentine poems.”
What else are you gonna do when you’re living in a series of English castles and can’t leave, but are too high-born to be expected to do any chores? Apparently several of his friends took him up on it, one commenting on this new custom, another playing it safe and writing his Valentine poem to his wife.
Thus another Valentine tradition was born.


Selected Sources

Oruch, Jack. B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February." Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 534–565. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 6: No, It’s Not about Lupercalia

Lupercalia image from the Univ. of Washington
In 1756, a Roman Catholic Priest named Alban Butler published the first of four volumes titled The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints (generally shortened to Lives of the Saints), in which he wrote, “To abolish the heathens’ lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of [February], several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets [tickets or tags], given on this day.”

This claim was embellished further by English antiquarian Francis Douce in 1807, who stated that the custom of drawing names was a feature of the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, and that Lupercalia is the origin of the pairing-up customs we associate with Valentine’s Day.
In a 1916 article in the folkore journal The Lotus, the supposed pagan origin of Valentine’s Day is offered as a given.
“There is no surpise in being told that St. Valentine’s day is the Christianized form of the classic Lupercalia, which were feasts held in Rome during the month of February in honour of Pan and Juno and known as Juno Februata. Among other ceremonies it was customary to put the names of young women in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The Christian clergy, finding it difficult to extirpate the pagan practice, strove to give it a religious aspect by substituting names of particular saints for those of women.”
The drawing of saints’ names was supposed to inspire an imitation of said saint’s virtues throughout the following year. That some clergy actually did this at some point in time would not surprise me, but it was not part of any early adaptation of a pagan practice.
Nowadays, you will find many sources on the Web stating with an air of certainty and authority that the “real” origin of Valentine’s Day is the Lupercalia.
No. It isn’t.
Prof. Oruch, whose research tracing Valentine traditions to Chaucer was explained in an earlier post (see also source below), found no pagan/Lupercalia link to the holiday, and points to Butler and Douce as the sole sources of this myth.
About Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Oruch wrote, “Butler’s ideas were prompted, in all probability, by a confused knowledge of the date of this isolated event; a less charitable explanation would attribute his remarks to wishful or pious fantasy.”
And as for Douce’s Lupercalia connection, scholarly works such as “Some Notes on the Lupercalia,” by E. Sachs (source below), describe the holiday’s customs as involving young men running half-naked through the streets of Rome whacking people with strips of animal skin. None of the surviving eyewitness accounts (the festival continued into the 5th century) say anything about the drawing of names or any sort of pairing up.
The origin of the Lupercalia is itself quite murky, as is its conflation with the purification feast of Februa, which lent its name to the month. Even in Roman times, contemporary observers such as Plutarch (45–120 CE) were not sure when the Lupercalia, which took place on 15 February, got started.
History prof. John A. North, University College of  London, and classics prof. Neil McLynn, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, describe the origin and history of the Lupercalia something like this:
The festival probably began as a religious ritual sometimes referred to as Caesar’s Carnival, commemorating Rome’s founding legend (the name being related to lupus, Latin for wolf), and involving the sacrifice of a goat or goats, after which young men wearing the skins of the sacrificed animals ran through the streets carrying strips of the skins and hitting people with them. At some point, the custom became associated with a fertility ritual, and women would hold out their hands to be struck by the skins to ensure their own fertility.
The event morphed during Roman times into a kind of street theater, its exact purpose not entirely clear, except maybe for unruly youth to let off steam. It was still associated with the idea of conferring fertility, and infused with erotic overtones, if you know what I mean. Some accounts say that women were beaten, but it appears that it was much more benign and playful (in a bawdy sort of way) and consensual than that.
In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius banned the festival, though it is often said that he “converted” it to the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemas, which takes place on 2 February (40 days after Christmas). Whether the Christian Feast of the Purification is adapted from or influenced by the Roman Februa is a separate matter and not one I plan to address in the context of Valentine’s Day, but it’s clear that Pope Gelasius had no interest in “converting” pagan holidays; he banned them.
I will take a more general look at the implications of February’s place on the calendar at the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and how that likely influenced the holidays we mark during this month, in my final post in this series.
Next up, some early Valentine customs in 15th century England.


[author unknown] “Madame Valentine.” The Lotus Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 5 (Feb. 1916), pp. 234-238. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Green, William M. “The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century.” Classical Philology. Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 1931), pp. 60-69. An online article from the U Chicago.

North, J.A., and McLynn, Neil. “Postscript to the Lupercalia: from Caesar to Andromachus.” The Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 98 (2008), pp. 176-181. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Oruch, Jack. B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February." Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 534–565. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Sachs, E. “Some Notes on the Lupercalia.” The American Journal of Philology. Vol. 84, No. 3 (July 1963), pp. 266-279. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Related Wikipedia articles:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 5: How the Birds Observe Valentine’s Day

Vintage Valentine image from Thrifty Images on Etsy

It is hard to imagine how, when the snow is so deep as it is this year, and the air is so cold, birds could possibly be engaging in springlike mating behavior. Yet it is this premise that is the basis for Chaucer’s poem The Parlement of Foules, whereby the birds gather in a grand assembly on St. Valentine’s Day to pair up, and so, by poetic extension, should humans.
Other Valentine-themed literature and imagery make the same connection, and so one might naturally ask, just how fanciful is this idea? Or was it perhaps first proposed in some mild southern latitude where spring really does begin in mid-February?
But in fact, even up here in the frigid north, birds do start their pairing behavior around Valentine’s Day, apparent to the observing ear (if you dare go outdoors without your ear muffs) by the increase in bird song. Chickadees and cardinals begin whistling, nuthatches voice their nasal-sounding nih-nih, and woodpeckers start hammering away their territorial drum beats. All of those sounds are the birds calling for mates, and they start their amorous chatter around the middle of February.
“These are all winter birds,” said Massachusetts birder and author John Hanson Mitchell to National Geographic News. “It’s still winter, but the light, the changing light, has a hormonal trigger, and that starts the birdsong.”
Mitchell is the author of  A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard. He says the singing begins with the birds that never migrated, which is why he calls them “winter birds.”
The singing is triggered by photoreceptors at the bases of the birds’ brains that respond to the diminishing period of darkness. So, for example, here on the 45th parallel, by Valentine’s Day we are getting about an hour and 20 minutes more sunlight than we were at the winter solstice.
And that just might be enough sunshine to make anyone want to sing.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 4: What Day Is It, Really?

It may strike you as odd that so much of the imagery associated with Valentine’s Day ever since Chaucer made it symbolic of match making in his poem The Parlement of Foules (see yesterday’s post about that here), are the persistent references to spring-like things such as flowers in bloom and birds in mating mode. How’s this? In February? England is, after all, in the northern latitudes.

The Huth Hours calendar, ca 1480, showing saints days for February

The very idea was so incongruous to one scholar, Henry Ansgar Kelly, the director of UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, that he makes the argument that Chaucer must really have been thinking of another St. Valentine, that of Genoa, whose day is observed on May 3. His reasoning is summarized in this tidbit fromUCLA’s website, but it’s based on assumptions and leaps of logic that have caused it to be roundly discredited by more careful scholars. (Also briefly addressed by Wikipedia's article onValentine’s Day.)

In her rather scathing review of the Kelly treatise, Phillipa Hardman of the University of Reading (see source below) points out that, among other things, Kelly is disregarding the calendar shift that had taken place by Chaucer’s time, got the date for St. Valentine of Genoa wrong (it’s May 2, not May 3),  and is making other assumptions about the significance of May 3 that “do not bear examination.”

I might add that it would appear that Kelly is assuming that Chaucer, who was a clerk at the Palace of Westminster, was more familiar with the Italian calendar, where the Genoese St. Valentine would have been honored — influenced by a trip to Italy eight years earlier—than by the English calendar, which would have had February 14 designated as St. Valentine’s Day.

About that calendar shift: In Chaucer’s time, England and all of Europe were still using the Julian calendar, which was off by one day for every 128 years from the natural year. Because of that, Chaucer’s February 14 was equivalent to our February 23. Pope Gregory reformed the calendar by papal edict in 1582 by eliminating 10 days, so that October 4, 1582, was followed by October 15, 1582, correcting the accumulated error in one massive leap. (From Duncan, see sources below.)

So now we have the Renaissance Valentine’s Day edged a little closer to March, but is that enough to explain birds in mating mode? Was Chaucer stretching his poetic license a bit too far by stating that birds “choose their mates” on Valentine’s Day? That’s the topic for tomorrow's post.


Selected Sources Not Linked in the Text
Duncan, David Ewing. Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. Avon Books, 1998.

Hardman, Phillipa. “Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine by Henry Ansgar Kelly. ...” (a book review) The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 20 (1990), pp. 236-237. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Oruch, Jack. B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February." Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 534–565. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)