Boxes of chocolates, bouquets of red roses and other tokens of affection: these romantic gestures have become Valentine’s Day norms. But many romantic partners might not realize that these modern practices and the beginnings of how we celebrate the lover’s holiday are steeped in the medieval period.

Medievalist Paul Patterson, of St Josephs University, says that the holiday’s first known connection in literature with romantic love appears in a work by medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

“The idea of Vale ntine’s Day being a conduit for people to choose a mate or celebrate love comes into play with Chaucer’s ‘The Parlement of Foules’,” says Patterson, an associate professor of English. “That poem is the first extant connection anywhere between romantic love and the idea of Valentine’s Day itself.”

“The Parlement of Foules” is a dream poem that addresses the role of love in our lives. It focuses on a parliament of birds who gather together to choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day. The narrator falls asleep and dreams that he encounters Venus, the goddess of love, who shows him its sorrows and joys. The dream also examines the birds’ mate-selection process and how they find a perfect suitor.

The mention of St. Valentine occurs at the end of the poem, in a song:

     683 'Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte;

     684 Thus singen smale foules for thy sake

     685 Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,

     686 That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

Patterson notes that Chaucer’s ideas in relationship to St. Valentine and love in “The Parlement of Foules” were influential to his contemporaries. The holiday as a celebration of romantic love begins to be mentioned in other works of medieval romantic literature and those well beyond the medieval period. Most notably, Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” acknowledges St. Valentine’s Day in the beginning of her mad scene in Act IV.

Another trope of medieval romances is the knight. Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” conveys the stories of heroic knights and their acts of chivalry.

“In the tales of knights questing, they spend a lot of time thinking about romantic love and the philosophy surrounding it,” says Patterson.

These stories are noteworthy in that knights are mentioned often by authors of medieval literature such as Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote “Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart.” The knights in search of love often encounter maidens to whom they dedicate their love. As the genre grew, medieval romance gained a universal audience despite its focus on high-ranking, noble characters. 

According to Patterson, today’s romantic entertainment – the rom-com – draws from medieval romance.

“In popular culture, romantic comedies carry a lot of the elements of this genre,” explains Patterson. “If you think about the characters in medieval romances, they [like many characters in contemporary love stories] are often of the upper classes. Think about ‘Love Actually.’ With their beautiful apartments and easy work schedule, the characters can freely explore their pursuit of romance.”

Patterson will further discuss medieval romance in Stuck in Middle English with You: The Medieval Roots of Valentine's Day, the third episode of “Good to Know,” the Saint Joseph’s University Experts Podcast, available on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, Feb. 14. 

Source: Newsroom, Saint Joseph's University, via Newswise