In 1382 Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, when they were both only 15 years old. The poem contained the lines…
For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
[“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]
Until Chaucer wrote Parlement of Foules, the celebration of Saint Valentine, a long held Roman celebration of a martyr (most probably Valentine of Rome or Valentine of Terni), held no romantic links at all. However, writing at a time when romance and courtly love was at its most fashionable, Chaucer’s work quickly caught the public imagination.
Although February was an unusual month for Chaucer to have written about birds mating, he wasn’t the only medieval author to have positioned such Spring-like antics so early in the year. Three other authors centered their love poems on the allegory of birds mating in connection with St. Valentine’s Day in the Fourteenth century around the same time; Otton de Grandson from Savoy, a knight called Pardo from Valencia, and John Gower, another English poet.
Although it is unclear which of these poets Valentine poems came first, they were all widely read, and the connection between St Valentine’s Day on 14th February, and the joys of courtly love strengthened and grew.
By the Eighteenth century in England, the 14th February had firmly evolved into an occasion when partners expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, chocolates, and other gifts.
In the Nineteenth century, the sending of Valentine’s cards had become so popular that they were becoming a mass produced item, especially in America and Europe, where the tradition continues to expand to this day.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.