When Chaucer’s fiction becomes reality

St. Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day (February 14th) in the U.S. is tomorrow, but aside from it being pointless (as if someone can’t treat their partner well for the rest of the year), it is celebrating a saint that no one knows anything about. On top of that, there are false expectations of chocolate, dinner and roses that every man feels they have to cave in to, all of which have been completely invented by the bosses of certain businesses in our consumerist society.

Let’s first look at the so-called Saint Valentine. If we go back to the first mention of him (or rather, them since there were many St. Valentines) in the year 496, we see that pretty much nothing was known about this person, aside from the belief that he was martyred. At this point, he apparently went from being known as Priest Valentio to St. Valentine. If we skip ahead all the way to the fourteenth century, we see that the romantic notions associated with St. Valentine were merely invented by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer (in the “Parialment of Foules”) and his friends. In the year 1493, it is here we see the very first physical representation of him in the form of a woodcut portrait, alongside a text stating he was a priest imprisoned for illegally marrying off Christian couples.

Lupercalia

As for the significance of the date, there has long been something called the Feast of St. Valentine which is based on a Pagan ritual called Lupercalia, celebrating fertility and named after the wolf, or lupus. Plutarch, a Greek historian of the time, described Lupercalia as such,

“Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs (a piece of leather used as a whip). And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”

The day for celebration according to the Pagan ritual was February 15th and the change to February 14th (as well as changing the one being worshipped from the wolf to St. Valentine), was mandated by the then-Pope and is believed to be the Christian Church’s effort to Christianize the celebration. All anyone knows of Saint Valentine though is basically that he was apparently a saint…oh, and he was supposedly buried on February 14th. Nothing like romance and being buried, eh?

Dia dos Namorados

Moving on to the Brazilian tradition called Dia dos Namorados (Day of the Couples/Lovers, loosely translated), which is celebrated on June 12th, the eve of Saint Antonio’s Day. Saint Antonio was a Portuguese saint who was believed to have married couples although originally, he was the patron saint of pregnant women and seekers of lost articles.

In any event, the Brazilian tradition is just as false as the American one and most likely, actually inspired by the commercial success of it. In 1949, the publicist João Dória arrived in Brazil from being abroad and met with influential businessmen in São Paulo to discuss bringing the idea to the Brazilian market. Since June was a low-selling month, they all decided that the eve of Saint Antonio’s Day would fit quite well.

On a side note, on many cards and advertisments for the Dia dos Namorados, a phrase from a famous sonnet by Vinicius De Morães has been falsely used. The sonnet is called the Soneto da Felicidade (Sonnet of Happiness) and the phrase pertains to the very last line which says “que seja infinito enquanto dure” (may it be infinite while it lasts). The phrase used in the advertisments and the one most people will quote uses the word ‘eternal’ instead of ‘infinite’. Some say they’re basically the same thing but to me, infinite conjures up ideas of space, size and extent while eternal infers extent only.

Perhaps though, I shouldn’t be complaining. It’s about time someone (me) invents a new commercial holiday based on….what do you say? A children’s nursery rhyme? A comic-strip? A silly superstition? I’m currently accepting suggestions and we can even go 50/50 on it.

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5 thoughts on “When Chaucer’s fiction becomes reality

  1. I know this blog entry is 3 years old, but in case any students out there find it on some random search, the first representation of Chaucer is NOT in 1493; there are images of him in early manuscripts associated with Thomas Hoccleve, his younger contemporary and acolyte. He was not a priest, of course, and by 1493 was well-known to the English reading public from print editions of his work, the Canterbury Tales. The “Parliament of Fowls” is often associated with the first celebrations of Valentine’s Day, but what you’re missing is that the poem was written for the occasion of renewed negotiations for marriage between Richard II, King of England, and Anne of Bohemia.

  2. I see: you got the info from the Wikipedia page for Valentine. The “he” in the sentence following your discussion of Chaucer refers back to “Valentine,” not “Chaucer”. In any event, Chaucer was by no means making up a “hallmark” holiday, and if you look at the Wikipedia page for St. Valentine’s Day, with its reference to the scholarship of H.A. Kelly, you will find that Chaucer was likely referring to a minor saint, Valentine of Genoa, whose celebration date is May 3 (closer alignment with birds mating, the poem’s major thematic tension, as well as the day after negotiations for Richard’s marriage were settled).

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