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.)

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