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Chaucer, Birds, Bees and St Valentine’s Day

Largely considered a Hallmark holiday by cynics (that is, everyone who isn’t ‘gettin’ some’), the history of St Valentine’s Day is a bit of a mystery. Even within the Catholic church, the existence of the saint himself is a matter of temporal perspective. Certainly there was someone (or a few someones) named Valentine who died around 270 AD and was beatified in the 400s AD, but as to this someone’s connection with romantic love, well…people go back and forth on this.

The Church’s current stance on St Valentine is that we don’t really know anything about him, and the veneration of St Valentine was controversially discontinued in 1969 (interesting choice of year…). It appears that the story of St Valentine secretly marrying young couples or falling in love with his jailer’s blind daughter and sending the first ‘valentine’ letter may have been retcons begun in the 14th century.

The man we actually hold responsible for linking February 14th with a day for gettin’ some is Geoffrey Chaucer (yeah, the same bloke who brought us April Fool’s Day). It was his 1381 poem “Parliament of Fowls” that linked the mating patterns of birds with the feast day of St Valentine:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,

You see, mating birds became the first signs of the end of winter and the blossoming of new life:

Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –
Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this winter’s weather does off-shake.

St Valentine’s Day became the last day of winter and the beginnings of summer (this was before spring and fall were fully recognized as seasons), and what happens at the beginning of summer? Well, flowers bloom, rabbits multiply, birds lay eggs and bees pollinate. Speaking of which, that’s how the birds and the bees became a euphemism for ‘the sex talk’ and why rabbits and eggs are symbols of Easter.

But not all Valentine’s Day traditions are about sex. In Finland, Valentine’s Day is called Ystävänpäivä (or ‘Friend’s Day’ if you’re having trouble pronouncing that) and is a day for cherishing platonic friendships.

And speaking of platonic, generally the word is used to describe close relationships devoid of sexual involvement—an intellectual love rather than a romantic one—but the use of this eponym is interesting since Plato felt that sexual relations in an intellectual partnership were simply another way to foster intellectual growth, and he often had sex with his pupils. So next time you unwillingly find yourself in a platonic relationship, be aware that sex isn’t necessarily off the table (but perhaps under it).