Posted by: Bystander PJ10 FEB 2010
Tomorrow, 14 February, is celebrated as Valentine’s Day by lovers around the world. But the annual day of romance was once linked to a different date altogether, in spring rather than winter.
The first reference to St Valentine’s Day as a special day for lovers occurs in a 700-line poem, “The parlement of foules” (“The assembly of birds”), by Geoffrey Chaucer (c AD1349–1400). He wrote it in 1382 to mark the first anniversary of the engagement of the 14-year-old King Richard II to the 14-year-old Anne of Bohemia. The poem includes the lines:For this was on seynt Volantynys dayWhan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make
(“For this was on St Valentine’s day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate”).
Of course, birds are not known for pairing up in mid-February, and Chaucer’s reference is actually to a relatively obscure saint, Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day was on 2 May. Chaucer chose Valentine, an early bishop of Genoa, not because of any connection with romance but because the treaty providing for the royal marriage had been signed on 2 May 1381.
Early May has been associated with romance since pre-Christian Rome, when the festival of Floralia was held from 27 April to 3 May. Featuring flowers and flirting, the festival honoured Flora, who was one of several goddesses of fertility and was believed to summon the birds and bees in spring to fertilise the flowers of the fields.
Chaucer went on to produce a romantic poem every May, and other poets took up the connection between flowers and St Valentine. But, in northern Europe, few were aware of Valentine of Genoa. The most familiar saintly Valentine was a Roman martyr commemorated on 14 February. As a result, that date gradually took on the association with flowers and romance. Over the centuries, the link was strengthened by a number of entirely spurious stories about young lovers supposedly being helped by the valiant Valentine.
And that is why tomorrow you may be wooing the object of your affections with expensive hothouse blooms or pricy imported posies rather than with spring flowers grown lovingly in your own garden — unless, perhaps, your beloved is partial to snowdrops.