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Chaucer's Cupid: Unveiling Valentine's Day Origins


A person with arms upraised in background, an an eagle with wings outspread in foreground and another eagle flying in the top right corner.In the centre is a quote from Geoffrey Chaucer's, A Parliament of Fowls.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day. A day to think about love: love of a partner (or potential partner) and love of self. If you don’t have a “special” person to share love with, I encourage you take a moment to quietly whisper to yourself, “I love you”. After all, you are the most important person in your world.


Once you’ve shared a little love, read on to learn when St Valentine’s Day came to be associated with love. Geoffrey Chaucer, we’re looking at you!


Chaucer's Cupid: Unveiling Valentine's Day Origins

A non-definitive history of Geoffrey Chaucer

So short our lives, so hard the lessons, so difficult the tests, so sudden the final victory, so tenuous the hope of joy that so easily evaporates into fear – this is what I mean by Love.
The Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer (Translation: Reflection Eleusinianm)

 

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s to 1400) was an English writer known for Canterbury Tales and, A Knight’s Tale (2001 starring Paul Bettany as Chaucer).




Geoffrey Chaucer: writing's his game...


In unveiling the Valentine's Day origins we learn that Chaucer (beside being a romantic) was also one of the earliest English writers to connect St Valentine to romantic love in his poem, A Parliament of Fowls (1380s).


The original opening lines of this poem are:


The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquering
The dredful joy, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by Love…

 

Later in the poem, St Valentine’s Day is indeed mentioned:


For this was on Saint Valentines day,
Whan every brid cometh ther to chese his make..
 Bidoonism Files (direct link to translation below)

 

The poem (one one level) is about a flock of eagles (and other birds) vying to choose their mate, while the female requests from Mother Nature another year to decide.


‘To you I speak, you eagles,’ quoth Nature,
‘Be of good heart and serve you, all three;
A year is not too long to endure,
So each of you take pains in his degree
To do well; for, God knows, free is she
Of you this year; whatever may then befall,
This same delay is served upon you all.’

 

It’s thought that the eagles in the poem could refer to the lengthy negotiations and eventual marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. (Madeline Pace, UNC 2020)


I had a quick read through the original as uploaded to The Bidoonism Files website and all I can tell you is that there’s a heck of a lot of birds mentioned with a few references to St Valentine and love and nature. The translated versions make a little more sense.


However, as this was written in the popular dream vision genre I can understand why it seems nonsensical (to me). Essentially, the narrator of the story is sharing a dream he had after reading a Cicero story about Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who conquered Carthage at the end of the third century BC.


This book of which I make mention, lo,
Entitled was, as I shall quickly tell,
‘Cicero, on the dream of Scipio’;
Seven Chapters it had on heaven and hell
And earth and the souls that therein dwell:
As briefly as I can treat of its art,
I’ll tell you, of its meaning, the main part.

 

The poem satirizes courtly love using the various birds to debate love and marriage and is written in rhyme royal, in the French Romance tradition. It's a gentle dig at everything “romantic” as represented by the goings on in a royal court.


Chaucer is often considered the “father of the English language”, but during his lifetime he was not just a poet. A civil servant, he worked as a bureaucrat, courtier, diplomat, and member of parliament. He was multi-lingual and translated many works into English while promoting middle English as “a respectable language to compose literature in”. The tradition at the time was for French and Latin literature. He was the creator of many common English words we use today, and the creator of Rhyme Royal (the rhyming stanza). While publishing as an industry wasn’t around during Chaucer’s lifetime, his poetry was popular and copied out by scribes.


I think Chaucer’s life story would make a great historical fantasy fiction piece. If you know of an author who’s tackled this, please share in the comments.


Listen to a recitation of A Parliament of Fowls:




Learn more about Chaucer here:





If you'd like to learn more about Chaucer, here are my sources:

 

 

 Chaucer's Cupid: Unveiling Valentine's Day Origins

 

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