What does a 14th-century English poet have to do with the billions of dollars Americans spend every year on Valentine’s Day?
“It is quite possible that in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer—best known for his Canterbury Tales—invented our present-day idea of this special day in his dream-vision poem 'The Parliament of Fowls,'” says Professor Peter Travis. (Illustration by Shutterstock.)
A lot, says Dartmouth English Professor Peter Travis.
“No one really knows how February 14 came to be a holiday celebrating love, and no one really knows why Saint Valentine came to be associated with amorous desire,” says Travis, the Henry Winkley Professor in Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature.
But, he says, “it is quite possible that in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer—best known for his Canterbury Tales—actually invented our present-day idea of this special day in his dream-vision poem The Parliament of Fowls.”
The poem, Travis says, “explores the ideals of cosmic order, political order, and erotic desire—all dramatized in a raucous debate carried on by a parliament of birds. At the end of this argument concerning the nature and purpose of love, Nature encourages all her birds to choose their appropriate mates.”
The poem ends with a song praising Saint Valentine, “providing promise that, even in the depths of winter, summer is not all that far off.”
“Perhaps that's why we still celebrate a holiday of romantic love at this time of year,” says Travis.