Chaucer & St. Valentine’s Day

You must read Rev. Joseph Abrahamson’s post on the origins and history of St. Valentine’s Day.  It’s part of his series that we’ve often linked to on Christian holidays that are mistakenly claimed to have pagan origins.  He shows that St. Valentine’s Day is not based on Roman festivals but on a day commemorating the death of a Christian martyr, though which of many saints with that name is a matter of some confusion.  The question, though, is how this saint’s day became associated with love and romance.

It turns out that the connection comes from one of my favorite authors, Geoffrey Chaucer!

After an extensive discussion that you should read, Rev. Abrahamson comes to this:

The first author to associate Valentine’s Day with romance was Chaucer. We are now more than a thousand years after the martyrdom of St. Valentine. Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400). from The Parliament of Fowls.

309 For this was on seynt Valentynes day,

310 Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,

311 Of every kinde, that men thenke may;

312 And that so huge a noyse gan they make,

313 That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake

314 So ful was, that unnethe was ther space

315 For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

(Online Medieval and Classical Library)

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Valentine’s Day.

The modern translation Rev. Abrahamson gives is not very good.  Here is a better one:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,

When every fowl comes there his mate to take,

Of every species that men know, I say,

And then so huge a crowd did they make,

That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake

Was so full, that there was scarcely space

For me to stand, so full was all the place.

The Parliament of Fowls!  Chaucer is writing a fable about birds, an exceedingly odd allegory about romantic love.  He has the birds getting together to choose their mates.  They do so at the time of year that happens to fall on St. Valentine’s Day.  Their numbers fill the earth, the waters,  and the trees, recalling the birds’ fertility.  Later other medieval writers alluded to Chaucer’s poem in referring to human romantic love.

So Happy Valentine’s Day!  (To you, especially, Jackie!)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • tODD

    So is it possible, then, that Chaucer is the origin of the romantic connection to St. Valentine? By which I mean to say, his allusions in that poem are merely to the day itself, but he does not suggest, as such, that the day is already associated with romance. But since his allegory is about just that, and since Chaucer was influential, is this where it all started? Because, in a quick perusal through the rest of the poem (admittedly, a modern translation), Valentine was mainly invoked merely to give a date to the odd ritual. He does not, however, appear to be invoked as some sort of patron saint of romance, marriage, or whatever.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    So we’re supposed to be buying chocolates for parakeets? :D

  • Orianna Laun

    The swallows every year came to the Mission San Juan Capistrano on St. Joseph’s Day and left on the Day of San Juan. Interesting, is it not, how birds have routine times.
    Based on this information, could one say that Valentine’s Day is truly for the birds?

  • Tom Hering

    Sounds like Valentine’s Day (or bird mating day) was originally an explanation for how the Easter Bunny was provided with a lot of eggs all at once (the Bunny’s first mention in literature was Georg Franck von Frankenau’s De ovis paschalibus, “About Easter Eggs,” 1682.) ;-)

  • kempin04

    It is a little odd to make the argument that Valentines Day is not of a pagan background by quoting a Chaucer poem that is framed by the pagan pantheon. Indeed, this pairing of the birds takes place in the court of the goddess of nature. I’m not sure how that is particularly “Christian.” Or maybe I am missing the point. Maybe Chaucer is the point at which the saint’s day became “paganized” by the presence of cupid, bacchus, venus, and the rest of the gang.

  • Steve Bauer

    I think you missed the connection (or lack thereof, actually) between the two points of the post. 1) The church created a Saints day for a real St. Valentine or Valentines) and didn’t borrow the day from pagan sources. 2) The (unrelated) point that the connection of St. Valentine’s day to romantic love came through through Chaucer. The Dr. wasn’t saying that the Chaucer poem was the origin of St. Valentine’s festival.

  • Gene Veith

    Right. Under medieval Catholicism, every day of the year was dedicated to a saint. Chaucer could have set his story on St. Crispin’s Day (October 25), whereupon we would probably give out heart-shaped Crispies in October. (Though apparently birds and animals often do start their mating season as soon as the days start getting a little longer in late Winter and early Spring.) Before Chaucer, St. Valentine’s Day was the commemoration of someone in the early church who was killed for his faith. Chaucer choosing that day for the mating of the birds, in an allegory about romantic love that was quite popular in his time, apparently gave it the association with romantic love. And it is an allegory. In the middle ages, even in explicitly Christian works like Dante and even later in explicitly Protestant works like Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the classical deities were used as personifications of natural qualities. So Chaucer talks about “Venus” as a symbol of love. That doesn’t mean actual Venus worshippers in ancient Rome had anything to do with this, nor that Chaucer worshipped Venus.

  • Kempin04

    Right, Dr. Veith. I trust your exposition of Chaucer. I just don’t see how it makes Joseph Abrahamson’s point. I’m not sure I FOLLOW his point. Valentine’s day is largely a secular and pagan holiday today. (I know very few churches who make much of it.) How many people recognize that Valentine’s day is a Christian observance TODAY, much less how it started centuries ago? What premise are we really defending?

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  • tODD

    I think I see Kempin’s point (@8). True, the commemoration of St. Valentine was not, as such, of pagan origin. It was just the commemoration of a martyr for the faith.

    But then, the modern holiday has, honestly, nothing to do with St. Valentine, other than that it is celebrated on his day. And while we Christians, in our freedom, may enjoy candy, flowers, and all the trappings of the day, we aren’t reclaiming the original commemoration when we do so. We’re just enjoying a cultural tradition.

    This is altogether different from the actual holidays that the church does observe, which are frequently claimed to be pagan in origin.

    Which isn’t to say that chocolates, flowers, and trying to find a restaurant that isn’t packed to the gills with couples formulaically expressing love (oops, sorry, got off track there) are truly pagan, either. Some of the touches are — notably, the Cupid stuff. But even those are unlikely to be vestiges of actual pagan worship, as Veith notes. So the modern holiday is just a cultural thing, and nothing more.


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