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.)

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