Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Geoffrey Chaucer: Patron Saint of Florists and Cardmakers, Scourge of the Lonely

"Valentine's Day is just a Hallmark holiday." Not true! Well... actually it is kind of true but not really. Let me explain.

The historical Saint Valentine is something of a cipher. Seems there were a number of martyrs with the name Valentine (or Valentinus as it would have been in Latin). At the time of their deaths, not a lot was documented about them. They must have done something to become saints, but to paraphrase Pope Gelasius I, God only knows what. So when the name starts popping up later in history, the stories are divergent about who he was and what he did. But one thing is for certain, romance was not his gig. Not yet at least.

That can be pinned directly to Geoffery Chaucer. You know, the Canterbury Tales guy? The one who wrote things in an imaginatively spelled form of "English?" (As my high school literature teacher told me, "standardized spelling is the price of technology"... Chaucer obviously had few expenses in that regard.) Anyhow, he must have been a popular writer in his time since it only took him two lines in a poem to forever change the perception of Saint Valentine and his feast day. Those two lines being:
"For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make."
Doesn't it just make the heart flutter? Yeah, me neither.

But thanks to Chaucer's dodgy knowledge of English birds and their mating habits (doesn't happen much in February), the concept stuck. And with it came greeting cards. Well, not in Chaucer's day, but in the Victorian era it was all the rage. They were handmade, elaborate, and sentimental objects of meaning. Then the Americans got the greeting card bug. But, as per usual, we like efficiency and started cranking out generic cards by the thousands to meet demand (some statistics put Valentine's Day cards in the billions per year... a curious amount considering the generalized disdain most people hold for the "holiday"). So now Valentine's Day cards are like "sweetheart candies," they are tacky and tasteless yet absolutely expected.

And all of this was brought on by a man who couldn't even spell "Valentine" properly. Go figure.
posted by jw