Language of Love: Scholar Explains Origins of Valentine’s Day in English Literature

By Tom McLaughlin

As February progresses, love is in the air – not to mention on the radio, on store shelves, in greeting cards and advertisements, and just about everywhere in between.

Chaucer’s poem, says the Rutgers–Camden scholar, describes how, on every Valentine’s Day, all the birds choose their mate.

It might be difficult to picture it now, but just as there is love at first sight, a first date, and a first kiss, so too, there was, once upon a time, a first reference to Valentine’s Day in English literature.

Aaron Hostetter, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, explains that the first two instances of someone referencing the celebration of love are medieval, appearing around the same time in the 1380s. One appeared in a French poem by Oton de Grandson, who was popular in England at the time, while the other was the first instance written in English: Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1382 poem The Parliament of Fowls.

Chaucer’s poem, says the Rutgers–Camden scholar, describes how, on every Valentine’s Day, all the birds choose their mate.

“It seems to imply that there is some kind of celebration of love; it is celebrating partnership,” he says.

Hostetter posits that, since both poems appear right around the same time, they were probably mutually influenced by the events of the day. He notes that French and English culture weren’t separate at the time, but rather linked in many ways. In fact, many people in England spoke French at the time.

“What Chaucer’s poem indicates to me is that the nobility – the aristocracy of this time – had probably developed a ritual – a culture – of celebrating love on Valentine’s Day,” says Hostetter. “He was tapping into this phenomenon.”

In the poem, explains the Rutgers–Camden scholar, Chaucer reads one of the books in Cicero’s De re Republica and observes the Earth from afar as a place of pain. He is contemplating this observation when he falls asleep and the book’s character Scipio shows him the garden of love. He then sees Dame Nature, an allegorical figure of fecundity in creation, who encourages the birds to find a mate as they do on every Valentine’s Day.

Hostetter says that Chaucer’s poem is believed to have been written for King Richard II of England and his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, for their first anniversary.

A debate then ensues when a female eagle is supposed to choose among three male suitors. Each eagle makes its case why he should be the one chosen and other ignoble creatures chime in with their opinions. The female eagle decides to wait another year to choose, he says, and the poem ends “suspended in indecision, which is common in debate poems.”

“So it’s kind of a weird celebration of Valentine’s Day,” says Hostetter. “It is Chaucer’s dream meditations on love and loss.”

According to the Rutgers–Camden scholar, the poem is thought to have been linked to King Richard II of England and his complicated international marriage negotiations with his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. It is believed to have been written for the couple’s first anniversary, but there are no accounts of the poem ever being officially presented or read to the king.

Hostetter further notes that the Valentine’s Day feast Chaucer describes was set in the early spring, which fits a literary culture of celebrating springtime as a time of love. He notes that the poet’s most famous text, The Canterbury Tales, likewise begins in the spring: a lengthy sentence “says that the Earth is waking up and it is time to go on a pilgrimage.”

“It was especially common in courtly love poems to start in the spring,” he says. “The grass wakes up and the plants are green again, the birds are singing, and the animals are amorous. Therefore, I can begin my poem; I can create a new literary endeavor.”

How the holiday made its way from the spring to Feb. 14 is uncertain, says Hostetter, noting that many holidays shifted times to serve another purpose.

But that’s not all that’s uncertain, says the Rutgers–Camden scholar.

“So much of what fixes our imagination on the holiday today isn’t known,” notes Hostetter. “Valentine’s Day was largely invisible as it evolved from the Middle Ages to what we have now.”

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