Thursday 9 February 2012

Medieval Valentine's Day

Every year I can tell from my stats page when the googling world starts preparing itself for Valentine's day, and in light of the number of people who arrive at this blog in search of medieval love poems, medieval terms of endearment, and ways to compliment their sweethearts in various medieval languages, I thought it might be a public service to combine the lot of them in one post of many links.

Valentine's Day is in a way a medieval invention, in that the first association between Valentine and romantic love appears in Chaucer (the Parliament of Fowls):

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.

He might have been talking about May rather than February, but never mind that; here we have the beginning of the modern idea of St Valentine's Day (blame Chaucer, as so often!). Regardless of the history of the actual festival, what I offer here is a variety of resources from real medieval texts for the discerning would-be wooer.

So - we have medieval compliments and terms of endearment for your sweetheart (and I can't resist including a link to this idiom for happiness. Please do tell your Valentine that her love makes you 'gladder than a bird on a bright morning' - I know it would melt my heart!)

Or take inspiration from King Malcolm of Scotland and decorate her books, even if you can't read them yourself.

What do we have in the way of romantic literature? Well, there's this, one of the earliest bits of prose romance in the English language. Yes, it's about Christ, but appropriate all the same. There's this idyllic depiction of a married couple whose 'love was ever new' - and their lovely honeymoon dreams, but unless you have the whole country of Denmark to present to your lover, that may not be for you (if you do have Denmark to present and no one to give it to, please get in touch...).

Here are the various medieval love poems I've posted:

Praise of a pale beauty - 'Her gladness will never pass away / as long as I can sing.'

An appeal to Fortune - 'Think what sorrow is the parting / of two true hearts loving faithfully.'

The power of memory - 'So deep ye be / Graven, parde, / Within mine heart, / That afore me / Ever I you see / In thought covert.'

Remembering what has been - 'Once I was he to whom ye spake, "Have here my heart! It is thy own."'

Unshakeable fidelity - 'Where I have chosen, steadfast will I be.'

Absence makes the heart grow fonder - 'She sayeth that she hath seen it written / That seldom seen is soon forgotten; / It is not so!'

But is hard to bear - 'And love is into my heart gone / With one spear so keen, / Night and day my blood it drinks; / Mine heart doth me teen.'

Lamenting a lover's lack of truth - 'If it were undone what now is done...'

A lover become a stranger - 'As he is my heart's love,/ My dearest dear, blest may he be!/ I swear by God that is above, /None hath my love but only he.'

Mourning for lost love - 'Therefore I take mine aventure, iwiss, / As she that hath forsaken joys all, /And to all pain is both subject and thrall.'

A very sweet little carol - 'For weal or woe I will not flee / To love the heart that loveth me'.

And for the sake of balance, we have: a poem on the fun of not being in love, a brilliantly silly parody love poem, and a reminder that (alas!) 'All other love is like the moon'...

But if you want to impress, don't forget the power of fine clothes, as attested to by a scene in Laxdaela saga. Wear your best clothes and your golden sword, and go talk to the girl yourself - that's all it takes (if you're a Viking).

Now the Vikings did not, of course, have anything so ridiculous as Valentine's Day, but I have to end by observing that nonetheless, the best Viking of them all literally owns St Valentine's Day. Because King Cnut and his wife Emma did in fact own the head of St Valentine. (As a saint's relic, I hasten to add, not as some kind of weird trophy). And Emma gave it to the New Minster in Winchester, more than three centuries before Chaucer helped to mix up Valentine with romantic sentiment. Trust Cnut and Emma to make even Valentine's Day interesting.

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