After Hours

Geek Trivia: Valentine's daze

What historic writer invented the notion of St. Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday centuries ago -- though on a different date than the modern traditional observance on February 14?

What historic writer invented the notion of St. Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday centuries ago — though on a different date than the modern traditional observance on February 14?

The writer in question is none other than the illustrious Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and numerous other iconic works of English literature. In his 1382 poem "Parlement of Foules" (which in current spelling would be "Parliament of Fowls"), Chaucer included the following couplet:

"For this was on seynt Volantynys day

"Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make."

In more conventional terms:

"For this was Saint Valentine's day

"When every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

This is the first recorded reference of Valentine's Day as a romantic occasion. However, Chaucer wasn't referring to the St. Valentine's Day observed for the Valentines of Rome and Terni on February 14.

Chaucer wrote the poem to celebrate the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. This pair was originally engaged on May 2, 1381, and May 2 was the date of observance for another Catholic martyr, St. Valentine of Genoa.

However, as this was the age of courtly love, much of the 14th-century English cultural elite took inspiration from Chaucer's spun-from-whole-cloth christening of St. Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday — but they thought he was referring to the more commonly observed February 14 version of St. Valentine's Day.

The exchange of tokens of love became an entrenched highbrow ritual on this date, and it has survived in some form throughout Britain and — following British colonization — the United States. (Whether the highbrow connotation remains intact is another matter entirely.)

Moreover, the text within "Parlement of Foules" suggests that Valentine's Day's romantic roots stretch back centuries. Not realizing that Chaucer was writing fiction, some gullible scholars have tried to connect Valentine's Day to the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, which traditionally ran from February 13 to 15. But since Chaucer was talking about a different Valentine's Day, these connections are pretty easy to disprove.

Thus, for you cynics out there, you can rest easy in the knowledge that, yes, Valentine's Day is a made-up romantic holiday, commemorating an arranged marriage on a different date than the author intended. That's not just a misunderstanding worthy of a Hollywood romantic comedy — it's some historically hilarious Geek Trivia.

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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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