Tuesday 14 February 2012

Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up?

Happy St. Valentine’s Day.

But are you sure you’ve got the right date?

Today's feast day of St. Valentine of Terni has been a day for declaring love for several centuries. But Valentine of Terni has nothing to do with love or romance. No accounts of his life mention any of his supposed romantic acts until over 1,000 years after he died.

Valentine’s connection with romance didn’t start until 1381 when the one and only Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his poem “The Parliament of Fowls”. In it he wrote:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s day
When every bird comes to choose his mate”

This was the first time that birds mating and a saint were mentioned together. Chaucer had invented the modern Valentine’s Day. This idea was developed by fellow poets, including Sir John Clanvowe. In about 1386 Clanvowe wrote “The Book of Cupid, God of Love”. Again, he connected Valentine with love and birds:
“And ever more two and two as mates,
As if they had chosen for this year
In March, upon St. Valentine’s day”.

At the end of Chaucer’s poem he writes:
“Saint Valentine, who is fully exalted on high,
Thus small birds sing for your sake:
Now welcome, summer, with your soft sunshine
That had made the winter weather to break.”

You can hardly welcome summer in the middle of February, and what birds are stupid enough to start mating in winter. Clanvowe and Chaucer are very clear about which month their birds are mating – May (the Clanvowe quote mentions March once in his poem. He mentions that it is set in May 10 times – perhaps it was a mistake in transcription).

May was the traditional month for romance and Chaucer’s poem was written to celebrate King Richard II’s engagement on 2nd May 1381. That date is the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa – NOT St. Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Genoa was well known throughout Europe because Genoa was a major commercial port controlling the majority of sea trade routes in the Mediterranean. Chaucer certainly visited the port and knew about its saint, and Clanvowe, whilst a soldier, had also been there. The English poets knew St. Valentine of Genoa, but not Valentine of Terni who was a little-known local Italian saint.

Over the years the romance of St. Valentine’s Day developed with fake legends, most significantly the myth that Valentine’s Day is really the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia which took place in the middle of February. But we know that the original St. Valentine’s Day was in May, so Lupercalia has nothing to do with it at all.

The confusion may have arisen in the Renaissance when ancient classical writings became available to the Europeans for the first time. The Catholic Church went looking for pagan festivals to claim as the origins of Christian ones. Here is my theory. Antiquarians may have noticed that St Valentine of Genoa’s feast day in May came during the Roman festival of Floralia. Unfortunately it was also the major festival for prostitutes, so perhaps to distance itself from such a connection the church looked for another Valentine – Valentine of Terni in February – to stick the pagan origins onto. The transformation was completed when the Pope made him patron saint of Terni and lovers in 1644.

Recent scholars has brought Chaucer’s and Clanvowe’s contribution to Valentine’s Day to the fore. Chaucer may probably have become just a minor poet if it hadn’t been for Clanvowe. They knew each other well. Both were royal courtiers. Clanvowe’s “husband” Sir William Neville was Constable of Nottingham Castle when Chaucer was put in charge of it’s repairs. William’s nephew married Chaucer’s niece.

It was Clanvowe who first called Chaucer the “Father of English Poetry”, a title which he carries to this day. It was also Clanvowe who, in his own writing, popularised Chaucer’s use of English instead of Latin or French, paving the way for Shakespeare 300 years later.

So, if you don’t get the Valentine you hoped for today, why not try all over again on the original St. Valentine’s Day on 2nd May!

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