Ever wondered where the tradition of sending cards to your beloved on Valentine’s Day comes from? You might imagine that there is something in the story of St Valentine that makes the day a special day for lovers. St Valentine, a 3rd-century Roman martyr, was persecuted for his Christian faith. We know very little about him, but it is clear that his story does not contain any mention of lovers.
The idea that Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers is thought to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a poem written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds which gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year. It seems that the poem sparked a tradition. In 1477, Margery Brews, a Norfolk woman, wrote a letter to her cousin John Paston, calling him ‘my right well beloved Valentine’. It is the earliest known letter of its kind.
It is difficult to date the poem, but one theory goes that Chaucer wrote it for King Richard II (1367–1400) during the negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. Whether or not this was really the event that prompted Chaucer to write the poem, what is clear is that the poem is a humorous and at times philosophical exploration of the idea of love.
Don’t like Valentine’s Day? There’s consolation in Chaucer’s poem, too. It ends with the birds singing a song, having failed to choose their mates and deciding to defer the decision until the next year.
The dream-vision genre
The Parliament of Fowls is a dream-vision. In its opening section, it describes how the narrator falls asleep while reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis [The Dream of Scipio], and then dreams of the parliament of birds which follows. The dream-vision was a common motif in the literature of the Middle Ages. It was used in multiple different ways by poets of the period. In the Old English poem the Dream of the Rood, written in the Anglo-Saxon period, it is used to describe a devotional experience, yet in the Middle English poem Piers Plowman by William Langland, it has a more political purpose.
This manuscript doesn’t just contain The Parliament of Fowls; it is actually a compendium of a lot of important Middle English prose and verse, including parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and John Lydgate’s Lives of Edmund and Fremund. The manuscript appears to have been written at or owned by the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis in Leicester.