The Parliament of Fowls

Description

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.

The manuscript

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.

Full title:
The Canterbury Tales (imperfect), and other works, including the Prose Brut Chronicle of England ('peculiar version' to 1419) (ff. 1-24v), extracts from Gower's Confessio Amantis, and Lydgate's Life of Edmund and Fremund (ff. 136-146v)
Created:
1425–1475
Format:
Manuscript
Creator:
Geoffrey Chaucer
Usage terms:

The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.

Held by:
British Library
Shelfmark:
Harley MS 7333

Related articles

Middle English

Article by:
David Crystal
Theme:
Language and voice

David Crystal explains how Middle English developed from Old English, changing its grammar, pronunciation and spelling and borrowing words from French and Latin.

William Caxton and the introduction of printing to England

Article by:
A S G Edwards
Theme:
Language and voice

A S G Edwards explains how William Caxton brought the printing press to England, and published printed versions of works by writers including Chaucer, Malory, Gower, Cicero and Virgil.

Love and chivalry in the Middle Ages

Article by:
Laura Ashe
Themes:
Form and genre, Gender and sexuality, Heroes and heroines

In the Middle Ages, the greatest knight was not simply the greatest warrior. He was also kind, courteous, generous and devoted to his lady: qualities that combined to produce perfect chivalry. Laura Ashe explores the ideal of chivalry through several works of the period.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

The Canterbury Tales

Created by: Geoffrey Chaucer

Written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century, The Canterbury Tales tells the story ...

Piers Plowman

Created by: William Langland

What is Piers Plowman about? The famous late medieval dream vision Piers Plowman opens in summer, in the ...

The Owl and the Nightingale

Created by: anonymous

What is The Owl and the Nightingale about? The Owl and the Nightingale is one of the earliest substantial texts to ...