The Poets’ Birds ~ Chaucer Imagines a Parliament

The Parliment of Birds ~ Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton (1668-1754)

Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday has somewhat less to do with the Christian saint named Valentine than with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Parliament of Fowls (or Parliament of Birds), a poem written in the late 14th century, is a humorous and at times philosophical exploration of the nature of love.

Composed as a Dream Vision, a common medieval literary device, the poem describes the birds of the world gathering in a ‘parliament’ convened by Nature. The purpose of the early spring gathering, which took place on ‘seynt valentynes day,’ was for each of the birds to choose a mate.

Three male eagles make their case for the hand of a female eagle, but their squabbling evokes protest and comic debate among the other birds; Nature herself finally ends the conflict by allowing the female to put off her decision until the next year. With the decision deferred and the rest of the birds unable to choose a mate, they end their parliament with a cheerful song.

Chaucer’s tale seems to have contributed to the rise of the Valentine Day tradition, for in February 1477, Margery Brews, a Norfolk woman, wrote a letter to her fiancé John Paston, calling him ‘my right well beloved Valentine’. The earliest known letter of its kind, the original text can be seen online in the British Library’s Medieval Collection with this added note:

Describing John as her ‘right well-beloved valentine’, she tells him she is ‘not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you.’ She explains that her mother had tried to persuade her father to increase her dowry – so far unsuccessfully. However, she says, if John loves her he will marry her anyway: ‘But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore.’ There was a happy ending to the story, as the couple would eventually marry.

Chaucer being Chaucer, the poem in its entirety, or even a selection in Middle English, would be a bit much to share. But this section that mentions Valentine’s Day, made more accessible by A.S. Kline, is enjoyable:

When I had come again unto the place
Of which I spoke, that was so sweet and green,
Forth I walked to bring myself solace.
Then was I aware, there sat a queen:
As in brightness the summer sun’s sheen
Outshines the star, right so beyond measure
Was she fairer too than any creature.
And in a clearing on a hill of flowers
Was set this noble goddess, Nature;
Of branches were her halls and her bowers
Wrought according to her art and measure;
Nor was there any fowl she does engender
That was not seen there in her presence,
To hear her judgement, and give audience.
For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.
And as Alain, in his Complaint of Nature,
Describes her array and paints her face,
In such array might men there find her.
So this noble Empress, full of grace,
Bade every fowl to take its proper place
As they were wont to do from year to year,
On Saint Valentine’s day, standing there.

If you’d like to give the original a try, you can find it here, complete with a Middle English glossary to help identify the various birds. Chaucer (and your high school English teacher) would be pleased.

 

Comments always are welcome.

86 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds ~ Chaucer Imagines a Parliament

    1. Isn’t that a great web of connections? I suppose for most of us Chaucer means The Canterbury Tales, but I really enjoyed this shorter work. I either never knew or had forgotten about “dream visions” or “dream allegories” — there’s a lot of interesting online information about those, as well.

    1. Well, it’s Chaucer’s poem, and if he wants to portray it as a parliament, that’s fine with me! Of course, it’s also true that some texts use the word ‘assembly,’ which makes more sense to me in the context of the story. We may load more political meaning onto ‘parliament’ than Chaucer did.

      In any event, it seems that all went home happy despite it all, and that’s a good thing.

      1. Here’s the first definition of parliament that appeared in the large 1913 Webster’s Dictionary: ‘A parleying; a discussion; a conference.’ The word came from French parler, meaning ‘to speak.’

          1. The full etymology is of further interest. French parler evolved from Late Latin parabolāre, which had come from the same Greek compound that has given us the particular kind of discourse we call a parable. The literal sense is ‘to throw [words] alongside.’ (For the ‘throw’ part, compare the beginning of ballistic. For the ‘alongside’ part, compare the beginning of parallel.)

            1. Yes, parabola and parable are doublets, meaning that they’re etymologically the same word. When I taught pre-calculus I used to explain to my students how the etymology of parabola fits the curve of that name. It’s not hard to do, but it takes some prior mathematical knowledge about the so-called conic sections (ellipse, parabola, hyperbola) that most readers of your blog probably won’t have, so I didn’t go into that in my comment.

  1. Well they didn’t teach Chaucer like this in my school and I would probably have paid more attention if they had. I have heard of a parliament of crows and owls before but didn’t know where it came from. So much to enjoy here.

    1. Another reader just added this etymological note, which also helps to make sense of phrases like “a parliament of crows” — “Here’s the first definition of parliament that appeared in the large 1913 Webster’s Dictionary: ‘A parleying; a discussion; a conference.’ The word came from French parler, meaning ‘to speak.’” When crows decide to speak, it’s hard not to hear them!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The history of our holidays often is more complex and more interesting that we realize!

    1. I’m not so cynical about the day. Hallmark, the chocolate-strawberry-dippers, the jewelers, and the flower sellers can set up their tents and flood the airways with their advertisements, but in the end we’re in control of how we celebrate, and a token of affection never is out of place.

    1. Until quite recently, I didn’t know about the Chaucer-Valentine Day connection, either. Once I learned about it, there was nothing for it but to share — even though chocolate probably would beat Chaucer in any poll about how best to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

    1. Every now and then I come across a painting I wish I could see in person. I can well imagine spending time with de Hamilton’s, filled as it is with so many wonderful details. I agree with your point about the pleasure of learning, and I’m also glad my education gave me a basis upon which to build. When I read Chaucer more than fifty years ago, I never would have expected to be writing about his work in the future — but here we are.

    1. While I wanted to acknowledge Valentine’s Day, I also wanted to find a different way to approach it. What could be more ‘different’ than a little Middle English poem? As far as I know, Hallmark hasn’t used a snippet from it yet.

      Do you know anything about A.S. Kline? I looked at several modern English versions of the poem, and his seemed most approachable, but I couldn’t find any critiques of his work. For my purposes here, I think his version’s fine, but I was curious.

  2. Dear Linda,
    It is amazing how popular the symbolism and metaphor of birds was in poetry in the Middle Ages. This was so in Persian poetry in “The Conference of the Birds” (1177) by Farid ut-Din Attar as well as in Chaucer’s text. The Kürenberger’s minnelied “ich zoch mir einen falken”, in which the falcon symbolises the beloved, is famous. Chaucer drew on these traditions.
    We had to smile that the Valentine mention in this letter comes from the area where we live.
    Wishing you a happy week
    The Fab Four of Cley
    :-) :-) :-) :-)

    1. When I read that Margery Brew’s “family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich,” I thought of two people: you, and Julian of Norwich. I found it equally interesting that Chaucer and Dame Julian both were born in the early 1340s. Talk about different career paths.

      I’d not heard of “The Conference of the Birds,” so now I have another path to travel. Of course the venerable YouTube also provides a few versions of Ich zoch mir einen falken, so I had the pleasure of being introduced to that as well. Thanks for visiting, and for adding such interesting details. You’ve made my week happier!

  3. English handwriting in the 1400s was so different that we can’t read it. Increasingly many American children today can’t read our current handwriting, either, as schools have been abandoning the teaching of it. For the time being, at least, Valentine’s Day seems well entrenched in our culture.

    1. Not teaching cursive is a very sly way of cutting people off from their own history. If I couldn’t read cursive, I couldn’t read hand-written family letters, or my gr-gr-grandfather’s civil war documents, or the diaries kept by explorers and pioneer women as they crossed the plains. It goes on and on. I know a young girl who asked for a recipe from her grandmother, and when it arrived in the mail, she couldn’t read it because it was hand-written. What we’re doing to our children, up to and including masking them at such a young age that their psycho-social development is stunted, is a horror.

      On the other hand, there’s no need for handwritten Valentine greetings any more. We have emojis to help us out!

    1. One of the things I most enjoy about blogging is that it gives me a chance to learn things, and to delve into them more deeply than I otherwise might. Then, of course, there’s the impulse to share — and the next thing I know I’m writing about medieval poetry on Valentine’s Day. It’s a little odd, but it’s fun!

  4. Chaucer’s poem about the parliament of birds has been entirely unknown to me until now. Your post and the comments were such a delight to read. Thanks to you, Linda, and Steve Schwartzman, the etymology expert from Texas, I have learned quite a few exciting things on this Valentine’s Day. Here is a quote from the Wife of Bath for this special day celebrating love: Myn housbonde shal it have bothe eve and morwe, My husband shall have it both evenings and mornings.

    1. I’ve been introduced today to another English poet who made use of allegorical visions and ‘parliaments’ in his verse: William Dunbar, who wrote some years after Chaucer. In one poem, parliaments of beasts, birds, and flowers are included, so it clearly was a common literary convention.

      I smiled at your reference to the Wife of Bath. As you might imagine, student interest was very high when we came to her tale in my high school’s British Literature course.

  5. This is exciting. Chaucer and Mother Nature and a parliament of birds–and I love the fact they can’t decide whom to choose! I went to the link and will have a go. For some reason, it seems accessible to me, with the exception of a few words. I’ve felt that way since reading Lament for a Maker/Lament for the Makeris years ago. The poet is William Dunbar and I’m pretty sure he’s later than Chaucer. Lament is really a poem of old age and friends lost–in his case they were makers, or poets/artists. It can be found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44205/lament-for-the-makers-56d22335db2cd Heaven knows we didn’t get much old English in school. I think about a week in Senior year…

    1. Dunbar is somewhat later than Chaucer; I remembered his name, but very dimly. I dove into this Poetry Foundation article about him last night, and found some interesting information about a poem he wrote titled The Thrissill and the Rois. Written on the occasion of the marriage of James IV to Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, it bears some interesting similarities to The Parliament of Birds. Here’s the brief description of Dunbar’s poem, so you don’t have to go hunting for it:

      “[A personified May] leads the reluctant poet into an allegorical garden. In the garden he discovers three heraldic parliaments—those of beasts, birds, and flowers. Dame Nature presides over all three, and King James is represented as reigning in each, first as the red Scottish lion standing majestically on a field of gold encircled by fleurs-de-lis, then as the royal eagle, and finally as the Scottish thistle betrothed to the Tudor rose.

      Dame Nature has advice for James in each parliament, reminding him in the last that he should behave as a king and “be discreet” and not hold any other flower in such high esteem as the rose. After Dame Nature’s last speech to the king, the birds sing a paean of praise for the rose and conclude with a prayer: “Christ save thee from all adversity.” Then the sound of combined voices of all the birds grows so loud that the dreamer awakens and proceeds, he says, to write the poem.”

      I love the thought of ‘parliaments’ of beasts, birds, and flowers. Beyond that, I’m wondering now why May Day almost completely has disappeared from our culture. May baskets and the crowning of a May Queen was a part of my childhood — not to mention the Maypole!

      1. I think the allegory with animals was a tool or form that worked with people familiar with animal behavior and helped people understand a point. It’s also all over tapestries from the time. I didn’t know about this Dunbar poem, but what a discovery! Isn’t the Poetry Foundation grand? I use them with some frequency–recently to grab an Anne Sexton poem I only dimly remembered for its reference to “the red sloop in the harbor,” which has remained in the back of my mind as a thing unattainable and longed for. Turns out, reading the poem now, it’s a luxury, which I suppose is right. Thanks for this summary. What a vision!

    1. A lot of us struggled with Chaucer, even when we found the stories intriguing. Still, I’m so grateful that we were required to take courses in American, British, and World literature. Much of what we were exposed to has lingered over the years, ever if we didn’t appreciate it at the time.

  6. Oh dear. Peeking at the link to the full poem was enough to remind me of college English courses I took. How did we ever get through that?!? Thanks for teaching me about the origins of this holiday, Linda — here’s hoping yours is a Happy Valentine’s Day!

    1. One of the things I really appreciated about the original I linked to here was the ease of using that glossary. If we’d had a tool like that when we were trying to tackle Chaucer so many years ago, I think it might have gone a little more easily. Maybe!

  7. I knew about the saint but, somehow, Chaucer’s Parliament of Birds had thus far escaped my notice. I’ll have to take a stab at the original, when I can find a few moments. It take time and some concentration to take in Chaucer. I remember having to read his “Canterbury Tales” in high school. It was rather tough going.

    I’d never run across that painting by de Hamilton before. What a gathering of birds!

    1. Isn’t that a great painting? I mentioned to someone else that it’s the sort I’d love to see in person. I can imagine spending a good bit of time taking in the details.

      Another reader up the page a bit (arlingwoman) mentioned William Dunbar, who came along just after Chaucer. I vaguely remembered his name, but when I went snooping last night, I discovered that he’d written a poem that included parliaments of beasts, birds, and flowers. I put the extended description of the poem in my comment to her; I found it at the Poetry Foundation site.

    1. Shakespeare probably gets the most publicity, just because his language is more accessible, but Chaucer could tell a tale with the best of them. I was glad to spend a little time with his work again.

  8. Interesting to learn of the day’s origin. I’ve always been fond of the day (it was my mother’s birthday), and sharing Valentines at school was a big deal. And the candy wasn’t too bad either. ;)
    Besides, who can complain about a day set aside for the celebration of love?

    1. Handmade valentines, decorated shoe boxes, and decorated treats were great favorites when I was in school; I wonder if you still can find the lace paper doilies that were a staple of our creations?

      I picked up the Meiburg book at the library yesterday, and a quick skim left me thinking it might be a book I’ll have to purchase some day. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m one of those who underlines and writes in the margins of books, and it already has taken some effort to remind myself that I can’t do that with this one!

      1. Craft stores probably still offer those paper doily rounds and hearts. You’ll have to let me know what you think of the book. I read 3 or 4 books at once, depending on mood or fatigue, so it takes me a while to get through each one!

  9. I never heard of Valentine’s day till we came to Australia. Perhaps it was the lack of my formal education, although in earlier days commercialization was less strident. Now, even in Finland they have a kind of Valentine’s day.

    Give me the parliament of birds anytime though. Much better than the parliaments of politicians.

    1. Speaking of parliaments of birds, do you know what it’s called when crows gather together for a discussion? A caw-cus, of course! I wonder if Valentine’s Day traveled west, to America from Britain, rather than to the east, to Europe? It never had occurred to me that it wasn’t a holiday everywhere, or at least in the European countries. A quick glance showed that it became popular in France, but it seems a whole complex of reasons kept its acceptance limited.

      Today, of course, everyone gets to share in the celebration of love: romantic or otherwise. Any day that highlights the power of love is fine with me.

  10. I love origin stories, thank you for sharing this one, that I have not heard before. I wonder if the term “parliament of owls” (which I always thought was fitting…) came from, as being a good descriptor for owls?

    1. One of my other readers pointed out that “the first definition of parliament that appeared in the large 1913 Webster’s Dictionary [was] a parleying; a discussion; a conference.” The word came from French parler, meaning ‘to speak.’ That sure helps to broaden the meaning of ‘parliament,’ making it as suitable for owls as for a gathering of politicians!

  11. You didn’t happen to be a teacher, did you? Because you always teach something new in your posts, and it’s always very interesting. (And honestly, I’d never heard this was the origin of Valentine’s day before…thank you for that!)

    1. I’ve done some teaching, but I never trained as a teacher, and haven’t been a part of our educational system. I did teach some courses in Liberia, and supervised students in a clinical setting, but most of what I learned about how to teach I learned in the process of teaching sailing!

      I’m glad you found this interesting. I tend to choose subjects that interest me — even though that often means I have to spend time learning about them myself. I figure if a subject bores me, it probably will bore my readers, too!

    1. Isn’t that a wonderful painting? My response was the same as yours. I could spend some enjoyable time exploring the variety of birds he portrayed. I wondered if Audubon ever saw the painting; I’m sure he admired it if he did.

  12. Where was this Middle English glossary when I was studying Chaucer in school? Forsooth, I say, it’d have been most valuable. I didn’t realize the influence Chaucer had on Valentine’s Day. Thanks for the insight.

    1. That glossary’s great, isn’t it? I had a good bit of fun just looking through it, remembering words that once were part of my studies. Your mention of ‘forsooth’ reminded me of a popular song from a few decades ago that included these great lines:

      “Romeo loved Juliet
      Juliet, she felt the same;
      When he put his arms around her
      He said, ‘Julie, baby, you’re my flame’ ~
      Thou giveth fever.
      When we kisseth, fever with thy flaming youth
      Fever! I’m a fire, fever, yeah, I burn forsooth.”

      Remember Peggy Lee’s great version? She did the arrangement herself, and she nailed it.

  13. I’ll pass with the Middle English but would have loved that glossary when I was in college! This was all new to me, so thank you for yet another introduction to something delightful.

    1. I vaguely remember class handouts that provided some help with Chaucer’s vocabulary, but there’s no question that this online version would have been easier to use. Besides — even Cliff’s Notes had their limitations! What I really enjoyed was the ability to browse through some of the primary sources in the British Library; their site is so well done.

  14. Chaucer I remembered from high school English but i never connected him to Valentine’s Day plus I was unfamiliar with the painting. Very interesting and enjoyable to learn of all this. Thanks!

    1. You’re welcome! Much of it was new to me, too: both Chaucer’s references to Valentine’s Day and the painting. Once I came across them, they seemed a perfect way to honor the holiday. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  15. Continuing education for the poetically challenged!
    It is comforting to discover so many poets and authors use the device of Nature convening to decide important events. My dreams coincide with the idea.

    De Hamilton’s painting is wonderful! I’m with you. Would love to see it in person and gaze for several hours.

    If Gini asked me to read the complete works of Chaucer to her, and if I were to actually succeed in doing so – I’m pretty certain that would be classified as “True Love”.

    Terrific Valentine’s Day writing!

    1. The good news for you is that even from this distance I have a feeling Chaucer wouldn’t be Gini’s first choice. Now, a little something from Mary Oliver, or perhaps from Wendell Berry? Sure. Maybe William Stafford, or W.S. Merwin, who hunkered down on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii, wrote poems, and raised palm trees. I’m glad to know about Chaucer’s connection to Valentine’s Day, but I love Merwin.

      Still, any time I can do a little something to wrest any holiday away from the forces of commercialism, it makes me happy. Next year? Maybe little candy hearts with Middle English messages: “Forsooth, Lady! Be thou mine!”

  16. Alas no Chaucer in my high school English. But I do recall my thick German accented grade six teacher saying how worried she was about taking a medieval English course in university in Canada. But she had done medieval German in Germany and was happy to discover that this had well prepared her for olde English!

    1. That’s really interesting. I don’t know enough about languages to support this, but I’d bet that the ‘ancestor’ language(s) for both English and German helped your teacher along. It’s easier to see in the Latin influence in our own language, and of course the similarities in the so-called romance languages are there. Still, the thought of medieval German leaves me a bit breathless. Even modern German can seem impenetrable to me.

  17. That poem was lovely. Winter does speak in passive voice, which we learned in high school English, sucked the energy out of a sentence. However, there is something to be said for the quiet, calm and semi-hibernation of winter, in my opinion. We got loads of snow in December/January so I’m over it and ready for spring.

    1. Like you, I love the silence of winter: especially after a snow. It’s been a good while since I’ve experienced real snow, but I certainly understand how enough can be enough. That’s how we feel in August and September, when we’ve had quite enough of our summertime heat, and can’t wait for the first north wind to blow.

  18. Thankfully I need only write a heartfelt few words to convince my Valentine of my love and no need to recite Olde English poetry on that special day. Of course as most students of my generation we at the very least read “The Canterbury Tales” but this poem was enjoyably new to me.
    If I am remembering correctly, it was within “The Tales” that I learned during those days the measure of a “Lady” was how far her fingers went into the sauce whilst dipping meat during dinner. I suppose that the measure of a man involved the wrist in the sauce.
    While a challenge, I enjoyed the brain tease of making sense of Olde English and even more resolving illuminated text. Gilt letters.
    This was another enjoyable and educational post from you. Thanks!

    1. I don’t remember that tidbit about dipping depth! It occurs to me that, by that definition, there wouldn’t be a lady in sight if barbeque or crawfish were involved.

      Maybe because we were granted the pleasure of a Frog Friday, I had a sudden vision of one of your frogs croaking in Middle English — or Middle Frog? To be honest, Chaucerian frogs might have made the Canterbury Tales more enjoyable in our classroom.

      I’m with you on those gilt letters. Illuminated manuscripts are gorgeous. I’ve seen some produced with modern techniques, but they don’t come close to being as ‘alive’ as that early work. I just tried but can’t find something I once read. I think it was about woodworking, but I’m not sure. Anyway: the point was that a time comes when the craftsman and the work enter into a wholly reciprocal relationship, with the hand being the point of connection. That sure would be true with the old manuscripts.

      1. No, not to be said of any person enjoying barbeque. The quote is from the Prioress’ Tale…”Of table manners she had learnt it all,

        “For from her lips she’d let no morsel fall
        Nor deeply in her sauce her fingers wet;
        She’d lift her food so well she’d never get
        A single drop or crumb upon her breast.”

        I think I mentioned “A Canticle for Leibowitz” once before. A character spends time illuminating text by Leibowitz. Reading that book is what whetted my interest in illuminated text but it isn’t anything I ever considered practicing. If I did, I am sure the first word would be RIBBIT! The relationship between a craftsperson and his or her work is art and the modern shortcuts used to duplicate such work is not.

        1. Reading that section from The Prioress’s Tale somehow reminded me of learning table manners when I was a kid. As for barbeque, there’s no better song to celebrate that little treasure than this one from Clover and Rachel Carroll. Texans grin a lot when they hear it, because it’s basically a listing of the best barbeque joints in the state. I’ve eaten in maybe two-thirds of them!

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