Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I will get some cards from my children and grandchildren. And I will give them cards, but that’s about it. I don’t expect fancy flowers and candy from my husband and he doesn’t expect presents from me. That doesn’t mean we aren’t happy with each other; we are. It just means we are happy without the presents.
Valentinus, or St. Valentine, was an early Christian martyr. He performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. I guess that somehow associated him remotely with love. But no one made that association until the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called “The Parliament of Foules (Fowls) to celebrate the engagement of Richard II (the king of England) to Anne of Bohemia.
Poets of the Middle Ages acted like public relations agents. If you wrote a poem which made a public character (nobleman) look good, you could expect a reward in the form of money or a good government job. Nobody every paid Chaucer one thin dime (or pence) to write a poem. I am sure some students, on hearing that fact, would wish Chaucer had never written anything since he didn’t get paid for it.
But Chaucer was pretty good at writing poems and getting public jobs and money. Various noblemen including John of Gaunt and Richard II were his patrons. He was sent on diplomatic missions, given a position as a tax collector and ultimately was Clerk of the Works for the Palace of Westminster. Being Clerk of the Works got him buried in Westminster (not his poetry), and his burial there started the tradition of Poet’s Corner in the church. He’s in a wall.
Back to the poem. In “The Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer whimsically asserts that all of the birds of England meet (in a parliament) on Feb. 14, St. Valentine’s Day, to choose a mate for the year. (Yes, Chaucer actually did write other things besides “The Canterbury Tales.”) All of the action takes place in a dream with the narrator at Venus’ temple in the sky watching the male birds making their cases for certain female birds in front of Nature, who makes the ultimate decision. The arguments the various birds make are funny. Not very romantic, huh? But this is the first association of St. Valentine and his day with love.
In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the idea of courtly love became common. Ideally in courtly love, a young nobleman was supposed to become enamored from afar of a young maiden. He should secretly love her, send her notes and do good deeds in her honor. Eventually, through the efforts of a go-between, she might deign to speak with him. The whole thing was supposed to be secret, illicit and whether sexual or not is left to your imagination (Think of the love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere).
Shakespeare mentions Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5. “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, /To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, / And dupp’d the chamber-door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.”
Paper valentines became popular, particularly in England in the early 1800s. Some speculate that a drop in the postage rate in the middle of the century made valentines even more popular as it was now possible to mail them anonymously.
The first mass-produced Valentines in the United States were made around 1850. The creator, Esther Howland, used imported lace and fancy flowers from England. As these store-bought cards became more popular, the practice of creating your own valentines diminished.
Nobody thought of adding anything with the cards until the middle of the 20th century. Now not just your sweetheart, but everyone expects candy in red satin heart-shaped boxes, flowers and, most importantly, jewelry. Even children, who must (mandatory) exchange valentines with every child in his or her class, now have the option of giving individual packages of candy with to or from labels to be filled out and stuck to the candy packets. I know; I spent last weekend helping grandchildren do just that.
Wouldn’t St. Valentine wonder at what is going on in his name? But then again, I guess so is St. Nicholas.
Paula Travis is a retired teacher from the Newton County School System. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.