| Photo: Getty Images

Geoffrey Chaucer is probably the reason why we connect romance with Valentine’s Day and spend billions of dollars worldwide on gifts for the people we love. Chaucer did not “invent” Valentine’s Day, but in 1381, he did write one of the first English texts connecting the day with romance.

In his poem The Parliament of Fowls, the goddess known as Nature oversees a parliament where all the birds, also called “fowl”, come together to choose their partners.

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,

When every bird comes there to choose his mate (ll. 309-310)

Chaucer wrote the poem to celebrate the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia – this is why we know the year it was written.

So who was Chaucer and why was he writing for a king anyway?

Chaucer was an English poet of the Middle Ages with an impressive curriculum vitae: philosopher, astronomer, bureaucrat, diplomat, soldier and courtier. He even collected scrap metal to be re-used, making him a mediaeval recycler, too. For people who like literature or Valentine’s Day, Chaucer’s role as courtier is important because it started his official career as a writer.

A courtier is a member of a monarch’s court. Beginning on April 23, 1374, King Edward III gave Chaucer one pitcher of wine every day for the rest of his life. Because April 23 is St. George’s Day, a day when artistic works were traditionally rewarded, researchers suspect that Chaucer was being paid in wine for his writing. This lifelong payment in wine makes Chaucer England’s first unofficial poet laureate.

That pitcher of wine each day might have inspired Chaucer, who wrote most of his texts after 1374. His works are very important because he wrote them using the English that people used every day. In mediaeval England, French or Latin was the language of literature and government, but during Chaucer’s lifetime, this began to change.

In the year 1362, the Pleading in English Act 1362 made English, instead of French, the official language of the courts. The Act pointed out that the common people spoke English and could not understand the French spoken in court. The Act marked a change toward a growing acceptance of the English language, and it probably also set the stage for Chaucer to write literature in English.

So if you buy a Valentine’s Day gift this year, think about Chaucer, the English language and those little birds looking for love.

 

billion Milliarde — goddess Göttin — to oversee leiten — engagement Verlobung — Bohemia Böhmen — poet Dichter(in); s.w.u. poet laureate Hofdichter(in) — impressive beeindruckend — curriculum vitae Lebenslauf — scrap metal Altmetall — mediaeval mittelalterlich — court Hof; s.w.u. Gericht — pitcher Krug — to reward belohnen; entlohnen — researcher Wissenschaftler(in) — to suspect vermuten — to plead plädieren, verteidigen — to set the stage (fig.) den Weg bereiten