A Theft of Love: How Geoffrey Chaucer Stole Valentine’s Day from John Gower

It’s a “fact” well known to students of medieval English literature that Geoffrey Chaucer was the inventor of Valentine’s Day, an attribution made on the basis of a famous line from the Parliament of Fowls (here modernized; for the Middle English original see below): “For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.” It’s a beautiful moment in Chaucer’s oeuvre, rightly celebrated as a hallmark of poetic love in English literature.

Wikipedia claims that Valentine’s Day “was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished.” Scholarly sources, too, attribute the probable founding of Valentine’s Day to Father Chaucer. The Riverside Chaucer, though more qualified in tone than the Wikipedia entry, puts it thus: “The Parliament of Fowls is surely the most delightful–and possibly the first–celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day ever written. No one knows how 14 February became one of love’s ‘halydayes’…Perhaps Chaucer himself hit upon the pleasant idea of enlivening the dreariest of winter months with an occasion redolent of spring.”

Perhaps.

But perhaps Chaucer fucking stole the idea for Valentine’s Day from one of his contemporaries, friends, and long-time literary rivals: John Gower. Since it’s Valentine’s Day and four days from the US publication of A Burnable Book (a historical thriller that features Gower as the protagonist), I think it’d be a shame not to make the case for Gower as an equally likely candidate for the invention of a tradition celebrated to this day in myriad sickly bursts of chocolate, flowers, and love.

First, the sources. Just as Chaucer wrote of St. Valentine and his day in the Parliament of Fowls, Gower wrote two ballades to St. Valentine and later collected them in his compilation of lyrics, the Cinkante Balades. One of these ballades, Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour, evokes not only the saint but the ‘parlement et convocacion‘ held ‘a son jour’:

St. Valentine, greater than any emperor,
Holds a parliament and assembly
Of all the birds, who come on his day,
Where the female takes her mate
In proper love;

Though virtually unread by scholars of medieval English literature these days, Gower’s Cinkante Balades are a remarkable and significant set of poems, one of the few surviving vernacular lyric cycles by an English author before Wyatt. R.F. Yeager, the dean of Gower studies, compares them to Petrarch’s Rime sparse: “As does Petrarch in the Rime, Gower offers a narrative of an (ultimately unsuc­cessful) love affair as seen en pastiche through the eyes of a first-person lover whose poems to and about his lady explore the range of his feelings.” Though written in French (Anglo-Norman, or “the French of England,” in current parlance), the Cinkante Balades stand as a unique testament to the thriving tradition of vernacular lyricism in late fourteenth-century England. Chaucer, whose strengths lay in narrative poetry rather than lyric, never came close to rivaling the Cinkante Balades in his own short poems.

Second, the evidence. The dating of both of these works has been a matter of enduring guesswork and fierce disagreement. The dating of the Parliament of Fowls is highly speculative. It could date from as early as 1380 (written around the marriage negotiations between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia), or as late as the 1390s, and most of the scholarly guesses at the poem’s date are based on biographical or political allegories that leave a lot of room for doubt. Likewise, the two Valentine poems in Gower’s Cinkante Balades could date from practically any moment in the poet’s career. While their sole manuscript witness is British Library Additional MS 59495, the so-called Trentham Manuscript that was dedicated to the newly crowned Henry IV in 1399, the poems themselves span Gower’s adult life.  While they could be late productions, they could equally well be juvenilia (i.e. written in Gower’s youth). Gower was born as early as 1330, so we could even be talking about the 1350s here, decades before the Parliament was a gleam in Chaucer’s eye. (If you’re interested in following up on the technicalities of dating, you can click here, here, and here for starters.)

After a studious, careful, and deliciously pedantic review of the evidence, I see no even mildly compelling reason to believe that Chaucer’s poetic evocation of Valentine’s Day came first–and no reason not to grant John Gower the coveted title of Prime Mover of St. Valentine’s Day. Indeed I think the Valentine poems are much more likely to be Gowerian juvenilia than mature works. Why? Well, when you’ve read as much Gower as I have (and I’ve read practically all of Gower over the last few years), you start to get a feel for the fellow: his likes and dislikes, his biases and prejudices, his habits and his heart. The Valentine ballades just feel like early Gower to me, and I’m beyond convinced that Geoffrey Chaucer stole Valentine’s Day from the older and–let’s face it–the better man.

But you know what? I’ll let you, reader, be the judge. Here are the two passages in question. First, in a suitably drab brown, I’ve given you Chaucer’s lines, in the original Middle English and a modernized version by Gerard NeCastro. Next you’ll see John Gower’s Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour (in Yeager’s edition and translation) highlighted in a vivid red to mark the poet’s almost certain invention of Valentine’s Day as we know it. We report, you decide. Enjoy!

From Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls:

And in a launde, upon an hil of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature.
Of braunches were here halles and here boures
Iwrought after here cast and here mesure;
Ne there nas foul that cometh of engendrure
That they ne were prest in here presence
To take hire dom and yeve hire audyence.

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kynde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
In swich aray men myghte hire there fynde.
This noble emperesse, ful of grace,
Bad every foul to take his owne place,
As they were woned alwey fro yer to yeere,
Saint Valentines day, to stonden there.

This noble goddess Nature was set upon a flowery hill in a verdant glade. All her halls and bowers were wrought of branches according to the art and measure of Nature. And there was not any bird that is created through procreation that was not ready in her presence to hear her and receive her judgment. For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate. And they made an exceedingly great noise; and earth and sea and the trees and all the lakes were so full that there was scarcely room for me to stand, so full was the entire place. And just as Alan, in The Complaint of Nature, describes Nature in her features and attire, so might men find her in reality. This noble empress, full of grace, bade every bird take his station, as they were accustomed to stand always on Saint Valentine’s day from year to year.

§§§

From John Gower, Cinkante Balades:

Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour
Ad parlement et convocacion
Des toutz oiseals, qui vienont a son jour,
U la compaigne prent son compaignon
En droit amour; mais par comparison
D’ascune part ne puiss avoir la moie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

Com la fenix souleine est au sojour
En Arabie celle regioun,
Ensi ma dame en droit de son amour
Souleine maint, ou si jeo vuill ou noun,
N’ad cure de ma supplicacion,
Sique d’amour ne sai troever la voie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

O com nature est pleine de favour
A ceos oiseals q’ont lour eleccion!
O si jeo fuisse en droit de mon atour
En ceo soul cas de lour condicioun!
Plus poet nature qe ne poet resoun,
En mon estat tresbien le sente et voie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

Chascun Tarcel gentil ad sa falcoun,
Mais j’ai faili de ceo q’avoir voldroie:
Ma dame, c’est le fin de mon chançoun,
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

St. Valentine, greater than any emperor,
Holds a parliament and assembly
Of all the birds, who come on his day,
Where the female takes her mate
In proper love; but by comparison
Of such a thing I am unable to have my own part:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

As the phoenix is alone in its home
In the region of Arabia,
Just so my lady in the place of her love
Remains alone, where whether I wish it or not,
She has no care about my supplication,
Because I know not how to find the pathway of love:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

Oh how Nature is full of favor
To those birds who have their choice!
Oh if, instead of my state, I might be
In just that same situation of theirs!
Nature is more capable than reason is,
And in my state it senses very well the path:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

Each gentle tercel has her falcon,
But I am lacking what I want to have:
My lady, it is the end of my song,
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

6 comments on “A Theft of Love: How Geoffrey Chaucer Stole Valentine’s Day from John Gower

  1. SusanneSssSS on said:

    artists, then and now, work off of and with others both of their time and those that preceed them

  2. John Conlee on said:

    Chaucer’s PF isn’t the only place where he celebrates Valentine’s Day. There is quite a lovely description of it at the beginning of his “Complaint of Mars.” For that work, too, the dating is a matter of some dispute.

    In any event, just as there are a few people who prefer Haydn to Mozart, there are a few who prefer Gower to Chaucer. In both cases, not many.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Oh, this isn’t really about preference, John–it’s more a light-hearted attempt at setting the record straighter than it’s been…

  3. Frederic Bush on said:

    since you mention pedantry… juvenilia, not juvenalia.

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