Chaucer and the origins of Valentine’s Day
An expert on Medieval literature explains how Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for our modern Valentine's Day.
If you hate Valentine’s Day, blame 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. While best known for writing “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer is also widely credited as the first English writer to associate romantic love with Saint Valentine.
“It is generally accepted that the date of February 14 first became associated with romantic love and various celebrations of love within the literary circle of Geoffrey Chaucer,” said Theodore Leinbaugh, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature. “Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls” is one of the earliest known Valentine poems.”
“Parliament of Fowls,” a 699-line poem about birds choosing their mates, might seem like an unlikely source for what is now a $20 billion holiday industry. But the poem may have originally been written to honor a grand occasion: the marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia after five years of negotiations.
Leinbaugh believes the poem contains a reference to this event.
“Three eagles in fact vie for the hand of this single female eagle, and since no conclusion is found the marriage is postponed,” he said. “This could possibly mirror the lengthy negotiations that may have been required to form the match between Richard and Anne.”
While this royal marriage was more political alliance than love match, the type of love described in the poem is more in line with modern views on romance.
“The poem explores ideas about nature and natural conduct as opposed to the artificial codes of conduct adopted by those who consider love something that can be ruled and regulated,” Leinbaugh said. “Sometimes those codes of conduct can lead to disaster — think of any kind of unrequited love — and ‘Parliament of Fowls’ seems to focus more on the joys and miracles associated with love.”
“Parliament of Fowls” not only exemplifies an idealized version of love in the Middle Ages, but also represents women’s increasing power over their own love lives.
In the poem, a female eagle refuses to choose from among her suitors and asks Mother Nature to give her another year to decide. Mother Nature honors her wish, and consoles the suitors saying, “A year is not too long to endure.”
Though “Parliament of Fowls” was written 600 years ago, it still resonates today. Take, for example, the poem’s opening lines: “So short our lives, so hard the lessons, so difficult the tests, so sudden the final victory, so tenuous the hope of joy that so easily evaporates into fear – this is what I mean by Love.”
Not a bad quote if you still need to write that Valentine’s Day card.
But, if you, like the eagles in the poem, don’t have a mate (or date) for Valentine’s Day, better luck next year. As Mother Nature reminds the lovelorn eagles, “A year is not too long to endure.”