What does a 14th-century English poet have to do with the billions of dollars Americans spend every year on Valentine’s Day?
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.