Literature, Medieval

Happy Saynt Valentyn’s Day!

. . . from Geoffrey Chaucer, who, as with so many other things, is often credited with starting it all.

His dream vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls, was written about 1380 and begins with the narrator (who seems not to know how to love, has perhaps never been in love, and will very likely never find love, in fact, he’s just pretty crotchety in general) falling asleep while reading Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. He’s transported, first to the erotic but soulless Temple of Love, and then to a lively Arcadian world presided over by the goddess Nature, in which huge flocks of birds are debating (arguing) about how, and who, to choose their mates. The dramatic tension is provided by the eagles, representing the highest courtly ranks. (Chaucer uses various bird species to represent different levels of society, and their dialog varies wildly, from those representing common, ordinary man, up through the eagles, representing the top of the heap. The poem is, in many respects a gentle satire on the emerging courtly love tradition and a commentary on contemporaneous royal marriages, as the birds mimic the behavior of commoners (whose behavior and language provides the comic relief in the poem), knights and ladies, kings and queens.)

Three young male tercel eagles are vying for the hand of the equally-young female tercelet. As guys do, each struts his stuff before her and tells her why she should choose him over the others. The first eagle is the highest ranking. Surely, the young tercelet will choose him, because he can give her status, and power, and anything she wants, and she will be the highest-ranking bird. The second eagle claims to have loved the lady longer than the other two. She should be his because he’s been faithful for the past. The third eagle says he’ll love the little tercelet unto death, so she should choose him because he’ll be faithful in the future.

And, as ladies do, she’s dithering, and finding it difficult to make up her mind. So she takes something of a mulligan and asks the goddess Nature if she can have another shot at choosing a mate one year hence (scientifically, this seems like a good idea, as male eagles only become sexually mature at the age of two, while females are sexually mature at a year old. I doubt Chaucer knew this, though. Still, good guess. And strategy).

Nature agrees (girl power, yay!), and decrees that the birds will meet again, in one year, on Seynt Valentyn’s Day, at which time the tercelet will make her choice. All the other birds have paired up, they all fly away, and the poem ends with a hymn to love and nature (my translation, just of the words (your can listen to the Middle English here). I don’t like translations that force rhyme and meter and get away from the original text)

Now welcome summer with soft sunshine
That will overcome this winter weather
And drive away the long dark night.

Saint Valentine, you who are in heaven,
So sing the little birds for your sake–
Now welcome Summer, with soft sunshine
That will overcome this winter weather.

Often the birds have good cause to be glad
Since each of them has discovered his mate
Blissfully will they sing when they wake.

Now welcome summer with soft sunshine
That will overcome this winter weather
And drive away the long dark night.

The light of Summer is coming after the darkness of Winter, and it is good that each of us has found a mate.

Chaucer may have written The Parliament of Fowls for King Richard II (Lionheart) during his courtship of Anne of Bohemia. No one really knows for sure what prompted it, but it’s generally believed to be the first association of St. Valentine with the cause, and course, of true love (the two poor unfortunate martyrs named Valentine who were executed by Claudius II in the third century A.D. and later canonized by the Catholic church don’t seem to have had anything to do with it). The tradition seems to have been established going forward after Chaucer, at least among the gentry, as one of the Paston Letters, written in 1477, is from a woman to her cousin and lover, calling him her “right well-beloved Valentine.” (That wasn’t his name, BTW. His name was John). She goes on to say that she is “not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall be till I hear from you.” And that she doesn’t have much dowry, but if John loves her, he will marry her anyway. Tale as old as time.

But things did not really take off for the Saint and his lovelorn followers until the Victorian era when mass-produced cards could be made in factories and the gift-giving of sweets was introduced. In 1913, the Hallmark Cards Company of Kansas City, MO, got in on the act and we haven’t had a moment’s peace since.

At Chateau Right, we try to cut through the noise on stuff like this. We like to celebrate those we love every day. And we like to tell them that we love them. Even on Valentine’s Day. Where it all started. With Geoffrey Chaucer. So many years ago.

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