From Early Christian Saint to Chaucer: How Modern Valentine’s Day Came To Be

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History lovers, or those encountering a certain Internet meme, may have wondered how a feast day commemorating a third-century Christian martyr came to be a celebration of romantic love.

The answer, as far as anyone can tell, is the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Written in the 1380s, Chaucer's 700-line poem "The Parliament of Fowls" is widely credited by scholars to be the first existing work connecting Valentine's Day with romantic love.

"The longer you are a scholar, the more hesitant you are to make sweeping claims about these things. But be that as it may, it's a Valentine poem in the 'fin amors' tradition," said Greg Roper, associate professor of English and a medievalist.

In the poem, a parliament is convened on St. Valentine's Day for birds to choose their mates. Several male eagles give courtly speeches, each arguing why he is most worthy to marry a female eagle. The female eagle, however, gets permission from Nature, who is moderating this session, to delay her decision for a year. The parliament is dissolved so that the other birds can pair up.

"In the first-ever check on over-romanticizing Valentine's Day, Chaucer leaves the major issue undecided, so that other aspects of human nature can be satisfied," said Roper.

Another unanswered question is why Chaucer chose February 14 for his parliament. While no one really knows, scholars have made the case that an early spring could have brought birds back to England at around this time.

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