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Geoffrey Chaucer (Pic: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Geoffrey Chaucer (Pic: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Geoffrey Chaucer (Pic: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Whether you’re one of those lovable goofs that adores Valentine’s Day because of the cards and gifts, or a sensitive and slightly lonely soul wondering why the only envelope that ever seems to arrive is from your mom, you have Geoffrey Chaucer to thank/curse that this tradition exists at all.

Quite apart from being the father of English literature and the creator of the deathless Canterbury Tales, Chaucer was also the person who took a feast day devoted to a saint with only a tangential interest in matters of the heart and made it all about the conventions of courtly love.

Saint Valentine (or Valentinius, as he’d have been known to the Romans) is not someone about whom there are an abundance of facts. He probably lived in the third century. He possibly performed illegal marriages for young men of soldiering age who had been banned from getting hitched by Emperor Claudius II on the grounds that it would sap energy needed for soldiering. And he was probably martyred on February 14 and buried on the Via Flaminia in Rome. This date became his official feast day.

So, for a good deal of time there was just a saint and a feast day, but no romance. Chaucer’s contribution was to use St. Valentine’s Day as the setting for his 1382 (or thereabouts) poem Parlement of Foules—or “parliament of fowls.” In this piece, his narrator dreams of a great meeting between all birds to choose their mates.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

It’s a poem devoted to the quest for love, to the ideal of love and the perfection of nature, and it was delivered into an era of knights and maidens, of nobility and chivalry. Almost by design, the day became first associated with those sentiments, then synonymous with them.

But that’s not all. Fast forward nearly 500 years to 1868, after American Esther A. Howland and her 1840s brainwave to send greetings cards to people you fancy, and we see Richard Cadbury, heir to the Cadbury’s chocolate empire, creating the very first Valentine’s-themed box of chocolates.

And this is British chocolate, remember, so it’s pretty special.

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By Fraser McAlpine