THE PARLEMENT OF FOULES
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men think may;
And that so huge a noise gan they make,
That earth and air and tree and every lake
So full was, that underneath was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.”
I have long been the landlord of a colony of Purple Martins. They are remarkable birds. Each year the first scouts arrive like clockwork on Valentine’s Day to return to their house in our backyard from their winter home hundreds of miles away. Like Robins, the sight of them brings hope and the first spark of spring.
Our celebration of Valentine’s Day has ancient beginnings but the details are sparse. Perhaps two actual saints were named Valentine and then again, it might have been just one. That person also might or might not have sent a letter to a girl and signed it “from your Valentine.” Oh well, it makes a good story.
Valentine’s Day became an established tradition after the late 1300’s when Chaucer wrote of it in A Parlement of Foules wherein he referred to the holiday as “when every fowl comes to chose his mate” (modern translation). It’s the romantic allegory of what we call ‘the facts of life about the birds and the bees.’
Even that isn’t exactly true of course. In his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis pointed out that Parlement isn’t a pure allegory but rather a pleasant poem containing some beautiful comparisons. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t exact. As Lewis wrote “every reader who loves poetry may safely be left alone with the Parlement of Foules. No such reader will misunderstand the mingling of beauty and comedy in this supremely happy and radiant work—a hearty and realistic comedy, and a beauty without effort or afterthought, like Mozartian music.”
Like love itself, somethings are best enjoyed without scientific analysis. As Chaucer says “the life is short and the craft so long to learn.” Someday, the Bible says, love will be perfected, but that doesn’t take anything away from its significance now. It is still a northern star which guides us to the eternal. Love is not our god, but
God is love
1 Corinthians 13
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
D I G D E E P E R
Valentine’s Day and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules
The commemoration formerly observed on 14 Feb. appears to refer to two Valentines: a Roman priest martyred on the Flaminian Way under the Emp. Claudius (c. 269) and a Bp. of Terni (Interamna) who was taken to Rome and martyred, and whose remains were later conveyed back to Terni. Though the surviving accounts of both martyrdoms are clearly legendary, there are indications that each contains a nucleus of fact; and it is just possible that the kernel of truth in the two legends refers to a single person. The traditional association of St Valentine’s day with courtship and the choosing of a ‘Valentine’ of the opposite sex is connected perhaps with certain customs of the pagan festival of *Lupercalia (mid-Feb.) at Rome, or with the natural season, not with any tradition concerning either saint of the name.
THE PARLEMENT OF FOULES, a 699-line poem in rhyme royal by Geoffrey Chaucer, was written in 1380–90. Composed in the tradition of French romances (while at the same time questioning the merits of that tradition), this poem has been called one of the best occasional verses in the English language. Often thought to commemorate the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, it describes a conference of birds that meet to choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day. The narrator falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful garden in which Nature presides over a debate between three high-ranking eagles, all vying for the attentions of a beautiful female. The other birds, each of which represents a different aspect of English society, are given a chance to express their opinions; Chaucer uses this device to gently satirize the tradition of courtly love. He handles the debate with humour and deftly characterizes the various birds. Although the debate on love and marriage is never resolved, the poem is complete in itself and ends on a note of joy and satisfaction.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).
C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, First Edition. (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 206–207.
‘Acta’ of both SS. Valentine in AASS, Feb. 2 (1658), pp. 751–62. Note on the SS. Valentine in Anal. Boll. 11 (1892), pp. 471–3. E. M. Fusciardi, Vita di S. Valentino, V. e M., patrono di Terni: Con messa, novena, triduo e preghiere (Terni, 1936). O. *Marucchi, Il cimitero e la basilica di S. Valentino (1890); R. Krautheimer and S. Corbett in R. Krautheimer and others, Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, 4 (Rome, 1970), pp. 289–311 (in Eng.).
On the origin of the association of St Valentine’s day with courtship, H. A. Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (Davis Medieval Texts and Studies, 5; Leiden, 1986).
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1687.