I am sick of love: A medieval Valentine

A shorter version of this blog post originally appeared on the University of Northampton news page for Valentine’s Day.

Fountain pen writing the word “Love” on paper. Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

Love it or loathe it, Valentine’s Day is a holiday that’s hard to escape. But you might be surprised to learn it hasn’t always been that way – and that before the late fourteenth century, the 14 February was only marked as the feast day of a fairly obscure saint. It turns out we may owe our celebration of the holiday to none other than one of the fathers of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. How did this happen, and who was the real St Valentine?

Well, the first answer is that there were several St Valentines in Church history! Valentius, from the Latin valens, strength, was a popular male name in antiquity, and there are records of multiple saints of that name in the days of the early church. However, the saint whose feast day falls on 14 February is a St Valentine who was believed to be bishop of Terni in the third century. A common version of his legend is that Valentine was arrested for evangelising his faith in an era before Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Valentine ended up converting the judge and his whole household to Christianity by curing the judge’s daughter of blindness through faith healing. Later, continuing to evangelise, Valentine was supposedly arrested and put to death. So far, this is not so very romantic. Later embellishments of Valentine’s legend, claiming he performed clandestine marriages for secret Christians in the Roman army, were a later development. In the Middle Ages, if you knew St Valentine, it was primarily as a martyr.

The very first reference anyone has been able to find to St Valentine’s Day being a day celebrating romantic love is in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Chaucer is most famous of course for writing The Canterbury Tales, but he wrote a good deal of other poetry, and the Parliament of Fowls is a dream vision poem, where Nature convenes a court to help all the species of birds find their mate. The court meets, according to Chaucer, “”on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes there to choose his match”. The way Chaucer phrases it suggests it’s a long-established custom, but many scholars now think that he made it up!

Detail of a miniature of an owl being mobbed by other birds; from a bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 47r

The poem may have been written in honour of Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in January 1382, and certainly the theme of young love would fit, as the couple were both about fifteen years old. Their marriage did not begin propitiously – Anne’s ship, according to the chronicler Walsingham, was wrecked as soon as the party disembarked, which would have been seen as an ill omen – but it seems that their union was a happy one. When Anne died twelve years later, a grief-stricken Richard ordered the manor house in which she had died to be torn down.

Once we get into the early fifteenth century, what may have been quite a recent invention seems to have become settled as a popular custom. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a little poem referring to his “gentle Valentine” when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                               I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                 My very gentle Valentine,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,                     Since for me you were born too soon,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.                    And I for you was born too late.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené                             God forgives him who has estranged
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.                       Me from you for the whole year.

(Translation by Sarah Peverley)

This sweet poem is the first known Valentine’s missive. Unfortunately Charles’s love story did not have a happy ending – his wife Bonne d’Armagnac died before he was released from prison. He did, however, go on to remarry, and the son he had in old age eventually became King of France (Louis XII) when his cousin Charles VIII died without issue!

The fashion for Valentine’s Day was probably well established, then, the first time we have a record of it in an English letter. This was by Margery Brews, a young gentlewoman, who wrote to her suitor John Paston in February 1477. She addressed him as “my right well-beloved Valentine”, and said regretfully that her father could not pay any higher dowry than he had already promised. She hoped that “if you love me, as I trust truly that you do, you will not leave me for that; for if you have not half the livelihood that you have, for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you.”

It must have worked, because they were married later that year. Several years later, Margery wrote another affectionate letter to John. In 1484 her husband was in London on business, and she requested that if he planned to stay in town long that he send for her, for “I think it is a long time since I lay in your arms”. Seven years, several pregnancies and the everyday business of marriage had not quelled Margery’s desire to be held by the man she addressed as “my own sweetheart.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

If you enjoyed this post, you can listen to a 40 minute lecture I gave recently on the subject of late medieval love and marriage over here on Youtube!

Dr Rachel Moss, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Northampton

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