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.
~Geoffrey Chaucer, from The Parlement of Foules
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 in South America. Like robins, the sight of them brings hope and the first spark of spring. Poetry and talk of love come easily as the bare, cold hand of winter yields to sunny songs of nesting birds and the bees’ industrious production of honey.
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 1300s when Chaucer wrote of it in A Parlement of Foules wherein he referred to the holiday as “when every fowl comes to choose his mate” (modern translation). It is the romantic allegory of what we call ‘the facts of life about the birds and the bees.’
Even that is not exactly true of course. In his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis pointed out that Parlement is not a pure allegory but rather a pleasant poem containing some beautiful comparisons. It does not matter that it is not 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 beauty without effort or afterthought, like Mozartian music.”
Like love itself, some things are best enjoyed without scientific analysis. As Chaucer says “the life is short and the craft so long to learn.”
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.
Bees, honey, and love
“How would human beings ever have made love to each other, without honey and bees to help them? It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, in all cultures and at all times, honey and love have enjoyed a special relationship. Not only has honey been the literal food of lovers, it has provided them with the words for expressing their love — the honeyed kisses, the honey sweet feeling of falling in love, the lover-like devotion of the bees to flowers and to their combs and queens — and even the day-to-day honey of ‘Honey, I’m home.’ And it is one of the peculiarities of bees and honey — both of which are at once deadly and innocent — that they have seemed just as appropriate in the service of sacred love as profane love.
Psalm 119 speaks of ‘Thy promise in my mouth, sweeter on my tongue than honey’. The love in question is pure and godly. Yet the words themselves are not very different from those used to express the utterly secular and lascivious love celebrated by Richard Barnfield in The Affectionate Shepherd (1594), with his desire that ‘my lips were honey and thy mouth a Bee’. The fact that honey is to be found in celebrations both of sexual ecstasy and of chaste worship is not just because different poets put their subject matter to varying uses. It is also because, although we cannot always articulate it, there is something genuinely weird and contradictory for humans about the love in the hive, something irreducibly puzzling, mysterious and strange.
“In a beehive, love seems at once to be everywhere and nowhere. Honey is one of the most tempting substances known to man; yet the bees themselves, while surrounded by all this sweetness, have always appeared free from the burdens of lust and greed. ‘Why’, asks Maeterlinck, do the bees renounce ‘the delights of honey and love, and the exquisite leisure enjoyed, for example, by their winged brother, the butterfty?’ For men, bees are at once the exemplification both of sex and of the denial of it. And, in the denial of sex, bees have promised to teach men about a higher love than the kind which usually ensnares them in the human world. But this promise is never realized. Try as we might, we are not like bees; and carnal passion, like honey, is still endlessly seductive to us.
Sources & Resources
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.
The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, Bee Wilson; Thomas Dunne Books by St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004