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.