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. Chaucer wrote a poem about the coming of summer which contains the lines, ‘Saint Valentine, that art full high aloft, / Thus singen smalle fowles for thy sake’. Given that this poem is about the arrival of summer, early May seems a more likely date for this St. Valentine’s Day than mid-February.

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.