Birds do it

Birds perching on a sprouting vine from British Library Add MS 1885 f. 14r

I’ve been asked to write a post about Saint Valentine’s Day.

Those who asked me to do this, should have known that this was like asking Mr Scrooge to write a post about Christmas.

My reluctance is not for lack of romantic spirit, but from an inborn resistance (somewhere deep in my Presbyterian genetics) to being hustled into organised festivities – especially by card companies, florists and the media-industrial complex.

So let me proceed with my hatchet-job.

Valentine’s day very likely has as much to do with a saint called Valentine as Boxing Day has to do with Mike Tyson.

Mediaeval Christians marked their year – not as we do with financial years, civic holidays and weekends – but with festivals of the church. So, for example, in some of the mediaeval British universities like Glasgow, the first term of the university year was known until recently as the “Martinmas term” because it contained the feast day of Saint Martin (11th November), one of the four days of the year on which rents were paid.

Calling a day Saint Valentine’s day means no more than saying that there is a feast day of romantic love on the 14th of February – which also happens to be Saint Valentine’s Day.

The lack of any more intrinsic connection with Saint Valentine is evident in the fact that the most popular mediaeval collection of saints’ lives, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden legend (late 13th cent.) tells a story about a Saint Valentine that makes no mention of any deed that could be construed as romantic. Here Valentine is just a “right noble knight of God” killed by the “Emperor Claudius” in 268.

In the 17th century the Bollandists, a group of Catholic scholars seeking to defend the church against Protestant charges of superstition, took a historico-critical flamethrower to the lush jungle of mediaeval hagiography. Their multi-volume Acta sanctorum identified seven different Saint Valentines – all of whom might be the one commemorated on 14th February.

  1. Valentine the bishop martyr of Baga and Taurus (Toro?) in Spain
  2. Valentine the presbyter and martyr of Rome
  3. Valentine the bishop and martyr of Terni (Interamna) in Umbria
  4. Valentine the martyr whose head is venerated in Jumiège in France
  5. Valentine the martyr “Socuellami in Hispania” (can’t work out what the modern Spanish place name is; suggestions welcome)
  6. Valentine the martyr of the Somme and Armentières
  7. Valentine, one of 24 soldier martyrs of Africa

The Bollandists’ Valentine, presbyter of Rome, defends his faith, baptises people and heals the blind, but doesn’t do anything that could be construed as particularly romantic.

Jacopo Bassano, Saint Valentine baptising Saint Lucilla, 1575

Given time and application, one could probably comb through lives of the other Valentines in search of the vaguely eroticisable. But we probably don’t need to, because Henry Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (1986) thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree. According to Kelly, it’s not Valentine, but Chaucer we have to blame for Valentine’s Day.

Kelly’s basic argument is that, when Chaucer spoke about Saint Valentine’s day, he was referring to yet another Valentine (number eight) whose feast day was celebrated in Genoa on 2 May.

All over Europe, the “merry month of May” was associated with the stirrings of spring and of the loins – in a way that the still wintry 14th February was not.

In his poem Parliament of Fowls Chaucer describes a dream in which he enters the Temple of Venus where all of the birds are choosing their mates for spring, and he remarks:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,

[For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose its mate] (Parliament, l. 309-310)

Kelly then argues that Chaucer’s poetical admirers spread the association between Saint Valentine and the birds (and the bees) through aristocratic courtly love poetry. Valentine’s Day filtered from there into the popular culture of Catholic and later Protestant England. The feast was well established by the 17th century.

Because the Valentine of 14th Feb was better known than the Valentine of 2 May, things drifted backwards a few months, and the romantic elements began to find their way into the story of a single early Roman martyr called Valentine commemorated today.

So, for example, the 18th century Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler tells us that:

To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls in honour of their goddess Februta Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets [slips of paper; the original “Valentines”] given on this day

Even if Kelly is wrong in blaming Chaucer for Valentine’s Day, there’s not much evidence for the a romantic Valentine before the early 15th century.

Still, I must admit that I am warming to the idea of a Chaucer’s Day. Who wants to join me in sniggering at the rude bits in the Miller’s Tale? After the deluge of Valentinomania, it would feel quite cathartic.

Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer; from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 93v. – See more at:

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