Hallmark and Cadbury might seem to have a lock on the holiday now, but Valentine’s Day celebrations can be traced directly to Geoffrey Chaucer. While the feast day of the martyred Roman saint gives the occasion its name, Geoff was the guy with the bright idea to tie it to romance.
Saint Valentine himself was priest who may have married Christian couples at a time when Christianity was persecuted (or not – he shows up on a fifth century list of martyrs whose acts were known “only to God”) but he got a slot on the liturgical calendar.
In “The Parliament of Fowls” Chaucer sets Valentine’s Day as the day when the birds gather together to find their mates. He opens with a sigh, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” – that craft of course being the practice of Love. In his usual manner, Chaucer portrays himself as someone who knows of Love only from books, but in his dream he meets Venus and observes as Nature oversees the pairing off of the birds into nice heterosexual couples.
Predictably, things go awry when three eagles all decide they must have the very finest female who is perched on the very hand of Nature herself, like a preening supermodel. They all argue not in birdly terms, but as courtly lovers.
Courtly love is the real backbone of Valentine’s Day traditions: candy, hearts, flowers? Kneeling and fancy gowns? Yep, it’s all there. One of the great sources is Andreas Capellanus’ Art of Courtly Love which actually dates to the twelfth century, though it takes a while to really grow into an industry.
Capellanus was probably writing a satire, but as Stephen Colbert can tell you, people don’t always get satire. Unfortunately, a lot of the unhealthy things we associate with romantic love come directly from this text and have been applied to Valentine’s Day since (not to mention most romantic comedies):
“He who is not jealous cannot love.”
“A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.”
“The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.”
“Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.”
“Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.”
“A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.”
This kind of exaggerated love may have been promoted among the young knights and squires to keep them occupied and out of trouble. After all, the truest love was a chaste one that put the lady love on an untouchable pedestal, where she was worshiped like the Virgin Mary – and safely from afar.
Courtly romances were often created to promote this illusion, like Palamon and Arcite in Chaucer’s own Knight’s Tale (though if you read the ones penned by Marie de France, you’ll see how often this romantic ideal became a carnal reality).
If Chaucer had been able to see into the future, he might have fine-tuned that rhyme royal into something that fit on a greeting card. Forget mucking along as poet, waiting in vain for that royal approval and barrel of wine – he could have been rolling in dough with Chaucer Cards and Chaucer Keepsake pilgrim badges. If only his Dutch wife had introduced him to Belgian chocolates – he might have beat Cadbury to the top!
[This originally appeared in my column for Bitch Buzz]