The Literary Origins of Valentine’s Day

Did Geoffrey Chaucer invent Valentine’s Day? Yes and no.

St Valentine’s Day has been marked in liturgical calendars for centuries. As a Christian feast day, Valentine’s Day actually commemorates two Saint Valentines: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. (The Catholic Encyclopedia even speaks of a third Saint Valentine, who was martyred in Africa, but little else is known about him.)

Chaucer1But Valentine’s Day only became associated with romantic love during the late fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, made the association in his poem ‘The Parlement of Foules’, written some time in the 1380s, possibly in 1382. The poem features a parliament, or assembly, of birds, which have gathered together in order to choose their mates. As Chaucer’s narrator remarks, ‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.’ However, several of Chaucer’s contemporaries also wrote poems about Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers, among them John Gower (author of the colossal Confessio Amantis), John Clanvowe, and Oton de Grandson. Chaucer was perhaps merely the poet who popularised this new fashionable notion, although there is some evidence to suggest that Chaucer was probably writing slightly earlier than these three other poets.

But when was Valentine’s Day in Chaucer’s poem? The modern reader is likely to assume Chaucer is referring to 14 February, but critics and commentators have pointed out that mid-February is an unlikely time of year for birds to mate, at least in England. Artistic licence is obviously a factor here, and 14 February was already established as the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine. And yet some scholars, Henry Ansgar Kelly among them, have proposed that Chaucer was actually referring to 3 May, a date on which Valentine of Genoa, a bishop who died around AD 307, was commemorated. Another fact adds credence to the 3 May theory: it was on this date in 1381 that the engagement of Richard II (Chaucer’s patron) to Anne of Bohemia was announced. Chaucer possibly wrote his poem the following year to mark the one-year anniversary of the betrothal.

So perhaps Chaucer ‘invented’ – or at any rate helped to popularise – Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance. It’s just that he possibly had a different date marked on his calendar for Valentine’s Day.

You can read a modern translation of Chaucer’s poem here.

Image: William Blake – Geoffrey Chaucer – Manchester City Gallery – Tempera on canvas c 1800, public domain.

41 thoughts on “The Literary Origins of Valentine’s Day

  1. Actually, Valentine’s day has nothing to do with Chaucer or Christianity. Most all the holidays we celebrate have roots firmly planted in pagan beliefs. This day is no exception.

    • I’d love to hear more about this, Wordman. It was my understanding that there was no evidence for Valentine’s Day having its roots in pagan ritual, other than the coincidence of the dates (Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia). This is suggestive, but hardly conclusive.

    • Someone recently told me about Valentine’s day’s pagan origins as well. But after reading Mr/Ms interestingliterature’s comment below, now I’m completely unsure as to how to imagine the origins of Valentine’s day!

  2. Before ‘the weather’ (there’s a phrase that’s going to last!) I’d noticed birds gathering nesting material: January. Depends on how mild the Winter – Feb 14th quite a probability. Anyhow,May is way too, that is, way too late for the first mating of the year!

    Good posting, though!

    • Thanks, Michael. I think you may have a point about the birds (I confess I don’t know enough about these things). One other thing to take into account, which supports what you say here, is the difference in the calendar – Chaucer was writing under the Julian calendar, so ‘his’ February 14th would be nearer the end of February by the modern Gregorian calendar, and by late February, I assume (you can probably confirm this) birds are usually mating!

    • I agree with michael9murray. The bird courtship goes on for weeks. First the birds gather, in my area (New England, USA) after their migration. Depending on the type of bird, the males and females don’t always arrive together. I’ve noticed this with the red-winged blackbird.
      Although, the first birds to arrive, the mallards (ducks), come in pairs (selection of a partner took place the prior fall) and they arrive in February.
      For some birds, it takes time for their mating plumage to show fully (some of their feather colors change to enhance the attraction).
      Once both males and females have arrived and the plumage is in full color, some species go through a process of male sparring to show off to the females their prowess at protecting a nest. Again, I’ve seen this with the red-winged blackbird. Then the selection of a partner takes place. The nest-building begins and takes time as well.
      But certainly for some birds like the mallards, this begins in February. I have photos of mallard pairs in February and then by the first days of May, their ducklings are trailing behind them!

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  11. I, too, was interested in researching Valentines Day, but not its origins. I investigated how it is celebrated across the globe. If you do the same you will discover that it is not always celebrated on Feb. 14.

  12. Thanks for all the comments about the Valentine’s Day post – sorry I haven’t replied to them all individually, but being laid up with a cold, and being sidetracked preparing the next few blog posts, are my rather feeble non-excuses. I have, however, read and appreciated all of the comments – thank you so much for reading :)

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