Jack B. Oruch notes that the date on which spring begins has changed since Chaucer’s time because of the precession of the equinoxes and the introduction of the more accurate Gregorian calendar only in 1582. On the Julian calendar in use in Chaucer’s time, February 14 would have fallen on the date now called February 23, a time when some birds have started mating and nesting in England.
Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls refers to a supposedly established tradition, but there is no record of such a tradition before Chaucer. The speculative derivation of sentimental customs from the distant past began with 18th-century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler, the author of Butler’s Lives of Saints, and have been perpetuated even by respectable modern scholars. Most notably, “the idea that Valentines Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present
Court of love
The earliest description of February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love. The charter, allegedly issued by Charles VI of France at Mantes-la-Jolie in 1400, describes lavish festivities to be attended by several members of the royal court, including a feast, amorous song and poetry competitions, jousting and dancing. Amid these festivities, the attending ladies would hear and rule on disputes from lovers. No other record of the court exists, and none of those named in the charter were present at Mantes except Charles’s queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, who may well have imagined it all while waiting out a plague.
Alban Butler in his Lifes of the Principal Saints claimed without proof that men and women in Lupercalia drew names from a jar to make couples, and that modern Valentine’s letters originated from this custom. In reality, this practice originated in the Middle Ages, with no link to Lupercalia, with men drawing the names of girls at random to couple with them. This custom was combated by priests, for example by Frances de Sales around 1600, apparently by replacing it with a religious custom of girls drawing the names of apostles from the altar. However, this religious custom is recorded as soon as the 13th century in the life of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, so it could have a different origin.
Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls
The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is believed to be in the Parliament of Fowls by Geoffrey Chaucer, a dream vision portraying a parliament for birds to choose their mates. Honoring the first anniversary of the engagement of fifteen-year-old King Richard II of England to fifteen-year-old Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer wrote (in Middle English):
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make Of every kind that men think may.
And that so huge a noise can they make
That erthe & eye & tree & euery lake
So ful was that onethe was there space
For me to stone, so ful was all the place.”
In modern English:
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird comes there to choose his match
(Of every kind that men may think of!),
And that so huge a noise they began to make
That earth and air and tree and every lake
Was so full, that not easily was there space
For me to stand—so full was all the place.”
Readers have uncritically assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine’s Day. Henry Ansgar Kelly has observed that Chaucer might have had in mind the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa, an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307; it was probably celebrated on 3 May. A treaty providing for Richard II and Anne’s marriage, the subject of the poem, was signed on May 2,
Three other authors who made poems about birds mating on St. Valentine’s Day around the same years: Otton de Grandson from Savoy, John Gower from England, and a knight called Pardo from valencia. Chaucer most probably predated all of them; but due to the difficulty of dating medieval works, it is not possible to ascertain which of the four may have influenced the others.