“For this was on seynt Valentynes day
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make
Of every kynde that men thynke may…Geoffrey Chaucer; Parliament of Fowls: 1382
‘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…’
We thought it necessary to translate Chaucer’s 1382 poem as quoted in the epigraph; Middle English may be a little daunting for those who have not struggled through The Canterbury Tales during their tertiary education. The poem we are quoting was written on the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard of England to Anne of Bohemia. Anne may not have had much of a say in the matter: she was only fifteen at the time. Ignoring that odd, somewhat discomforting, aspect of historical interest, this is the first written work that mentions the Saint that is now eponymously connected with the annual day of romance that is celebrated worldwide. Although why Chaucer thought that a conference of birds, with accompanying descriptive ‘so huge a noise they began to make’ would please his king, is something only Chaucer could explain.
We have written before about this intriguing day in the calendar, but it’s worth exploring again, if only for the fact that has quite a confusing heritage. The Saint Valentine in question is not cut and dried: there were numerous early Christian martyrs called Valentine, and there are at least two candidates for the title of patron saint of lovers young and old – Valentine of Rome (d. 269 CE) and Valentine of Terni (d. 273 CE). One rather gruesome thing these long-dead martyrs have in common is the fact that both their skulls are on display: Valentine of Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome (with a crown of flowers, fittingly), and Valentine of Terni’s skull is venerated in the Abby of New Minster, in Winchester. Just how it got there is not explained.
Valentines Day as it is celebrated today is also connected through folk-lore with the advent of spring in the northern hemisphere. There is some evidence that the mid-February date is based on the ancient Roman purification festival of Lupercalia, but there is no definitive evidence of this, despite the festival being tied in with ‘love and fertility’. It’s a convenient historical peg to hang a theory on, but the truth is that the first definite connection between a Valentine reference and the 14th February remains Chaucer’s poem: seven hundred years after Lupercalia ceased as a festival. A rather more dubious custom arose in the Middle Ages at this time of the year: men and women would put their names in a jar, and couples drawn at random would have to, ahem, couple. And we thought that the 60’s were free-spirited…
Not surprisingly, priests at the time were a little dismayed by this wanton behaviour, and the ritual was replaced by the simple expedient of women drawing the names of Apostles from the jar at the altar, and, we suppose, praying to these worthies for guidance from sin. A school of thought has it that these random picks were the start of the current practice of sending Valentine’s Day cards and messages, but there is little evidence for this. After Chaucer’s poem, the earliest description of February the 14th as an annual celebration of romance appears in the Charter of the Court of Love, issued by Charles VI of France in 1400, and this recommended lavish feasts and festivities for selected courtiers, and amorous song and poetry competitions. (A footnote to this event is that it all might have been a figment of the imagination of Charles’s queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, who was impatiently waiting out the plague.)
But the poetry aspect caught on, the earliest surviving piece being a rondeau written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415. As he was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time, it has a certain Gallic element of despair. Shakespeare, naturally, got on the bandwagon, and Ophelia – in Hamlet (1600) – intones ruefully that:
‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.’
Times have changed, of course, and these days a plethora of Valentine’s Day cards are available that cover every aspect of romance and desire conceivable: no longer do star-crossed lovers have to sit, quill in hand and staring at the night sky, trying to find a word that rhymes with ‘Valentine’.
There is an even better way to declare your love: A Waterfront Charters Valentine’s Day Champagne Cruise. Picture yourself on the deck of a luxurious catamaran off the coast of Cape Town; under one arm the love of your life, in the other hand a flute of chilled complimentary sparkling wine. With a red rose handed out on boarding, the cruise says ‘romance’ from start to finish. Choose between a pre-sunset cruise if you have evening plans, or take the sunset option to watch the sun drop over the horizon, adding its special touch to the event. All details are on the website, but we suggest you book soon. After all, love is in the air…