Monday, February 3, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 3: What’s Chaucer Got to Do with It?

Geoffrey Chaucer
 In 1382, Chaucer published his story poem A Parlement of Foules, about a fanciful gathering of birds for the purpose of choosing their mates. He set the date of his gathering of the birds on St. Valentine’s Day, and because of this correlation, numerous scholars over the years have assumed that it was already customary to associate Valentine’s Day with love and romance, and that Chaucer’s poem was just reflecting an existing practice.

Except, when Kansas English Lit professor Jack Oruch dug into the historical record to find some evidence of this, he came up empty. In 1981 he published his very extensive research (see sources, below) concluding that Chaucer was the first on record to make a connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love, and that he did so because it was a convenient day on which to set his story, not because of any existing societal customs.

Why, then, did Chaucer choose Valentine’s Day? Oruch explains at some footnoted length, but here are the pertinant points he convincingly makes.

First, to set a story at a vague time frame like “sometime around the middle of February” is terribly dull and unpoetic, and, anyway, in those days it was most common for people to date events according to the names given to specific dates in the liturgical calendar, which could mean a saint’s day or another religious observance. Even today, the spring semester at English colleges is known as Candlemas term, and the fall is identified either as Michaelmas term (in England) or Martinmas term (in Scotland).

If Chaucer looked to the middle of February for a catchy name for a specific day, he would have found, for the 10th, saints Scholastica and Austreberte; for the 12th, St. Eulalia; and for the 13th, depending on what calendar he consulted, either nothing, or St. Eormenhilde. Oruch points out that most of these names do not “lend themselves to verse and rhyme” (I would argue that Eulalia is the exception to that), or that they are associated with “unpromising legends of ascetic chastity.” (Eulalia was a 13-year-old virgin when she was martyred under Diocletian.)

St. Valentine not only possessed a name that was considered beautiful in his day, but the name was also associated with a well-known popular romance, as I explained in yesterday’s post.

And so, invoking his poetic license, Chaucer wrote:

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his mate ...

And that, says Oruch, was the first time the Saint’s day was associated with mate-choosing.

Chaucer mentions the day a few more times in subsequent verses, and Oruch argues that the poet is using this reiteration, and describing quite specifically this annual gathering of the birds to choose mates “the character of which is carefully and repeatedly spelled out,” because he does not expect his audience to already know what he is talking about. As the ingeniously creative poet that he is, Chaucer is making up an elaborate tradition to embellish observed bird behavior and probably had no idea what social customs would arise as a result.

Subsequent works by Chaucer and other poets of the 14th and 15th centuries repeated this association, and it's in the 15th century that the historical record first shows evidence of gift-giving and romantic verse on the occasion of St. Valentine's Day.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the date itself, and our shifting calendar.


Selected Sources
Duncan, David Ewing. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. Avon Books, 1998. (p. 131)

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.)

“Valentine’s Day.” Wikipedia.'s_Day

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