If romantic love has a holiday then it has to be St. Valentine’s Day. But this was not always the case. As strange as it may sound, we likely owe this popular notion in part to an English poem composed more than 600 years ago—a poem about a bunch of birds written for a 14-year-old monarch and his soon-to-be-wife.
Although Valentine’s Day has ties to the wild, drunken festivities of the ancient Romans’ Lupercalia celebration (1), one of the first documented connections made between Valentine’s Day and romantic coupling actually comes from the late Middle Ages. During this time, around 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer—yes, that same chap responsible for The Canterbury Tales—penned his dedication to a young King Richard II and his fiancée, Anne of Bohemia (2, 3). A rather curious work, Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls”(4) sets out in exploration of love and its mysteries. The poem includes a dream populated with Roman divinities and heroes before eventually moving toward a beautiful pastoral setting where an assembly of talking birds are gathering. In fact, birds of various kinds are arriving there on Valentine’s Day, we are told, for the purpose of selecting a mate.
In Chaucer’s poem, all sorts of fowl—goose, duck, peacock, stork, kite, robin, owl, and more—congregate on this annual occasion. This year the creatures settle near the great goddess Nature for a debate involving several eagles. One after another, the birds are frequently introduced in association with a particular characteristic, not unlike the moralizing bestiaries of this period. As examples, the cormorant is described as gluttonous and the raven is noted for its intelligence and wisdom. Interestingly, Chaucer does not specifically name the vulture, which was believed by some people at the time capable of reproducing without need of a male partner.
Feathers of Lust, Love, and Lechery
Overall, the poet maintains traditional stereotypes when citing particular birds. For instance, he links the dove and the sparrow with the goddess of love. Historically, deities concerned with amorous relations, such as Aphrodite, Venus, and Ishtar, had long been depicted with these birds (5, 6). Chaucer was likely well aware of these non-Christian motifs. Even our language today reflects this age-old connection, as with the rhyming descriptor “lovey-dovey” (7). But both doves and sparrows signified more than just love; they also were metaphors for sexual desire (8, 9, 10).
The same could be said of the “popinjay” or parrot, a bird that may be interpreted in the poem as lecherous (11). Again, like the previously mentioned fowl, parrots have been associated with affectionate and lustful feelings, particularly in the East. In India, they were even popular as pets with courtesans (12). These birds, first domesticated in Asia and Africa, were introduced to Europe in the 4th-century B.C. during the time of Alexander the Great (13). And, thanks to traders, parrots later found their way to England before the time of Chaucer, who also writes of a popinjay in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales.
The Dead-Beat Cuckoo
Of the many birds throughout “The Parliament of Fowls”, one is cast in particularly bad light: the Old World cuckoo. Chaucer describes her as “unkinde” and murderous. His assertions, though, come with ample reason. The poet is referring to the female cuckoo’s habit of placing her eggs in another unsuspecting bird’s nest, a practice referred to in biology as brood parasitism. This deceit in turn leads to the mother bird of that nest feeding an illegitimate hatchling. Worse yet, though, are the illegitimate offspring’s lethal actions. Eventually the young cuckoo will nudge the other birds out of the nest and to their deaths.
The cuckoo’s brood parasitism has led people to label it as lazy and irresponsible, as well as unfaithful. Interestingly, the bird’s name is linguistically related in several languages—though not in English—to either an adulteress (14) or to the word “cuckold”, a term for an obtuse man, particularly an older one, who’s oblivious to the affairs of his adulterous wife (15, 16). The word appears in The Canterbury Tales several times, rendered as “cokewold”. Furthermore, the cuckoo’s reputation as one who mocks love, resurfaces in English literature, such as in “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” by Chaucer’s contemporary John Clanvowe and later in “O Nightingale” by John Milton.
The Affairs of Birds
Despite a few questionable aspects, Chaucer’s birds in general seem fitting enough for a love-themed poem. Like the poet, many of us still find avian metaphors appropriate today for romantic associations. In the United Kingdom, a significant other is referred to as my “duck”, while “dolly bird” is slang for a young, attractive woman (17, 18). There’s even the popular “birds and the bees” euphemism for sexual relations.
Clearly, though, there are several key ornithological inaccuracies within the central theme of “The Parliament of Fowls”. For starters, birds do not collectively select mates on one given day throughout the year, no matter whether it be February 14th or May 3rd, the day the young king’s engagement was announced (19). Also, our avian neighbors, especially songbirds, usually do not mate for life and are often unfaithful (20, 21, 22). Chaucer probably didn’t realize this; otherwise, he likely would have reconsidered using them in a matter related to royal matrimony!
On one important positive note, research has discovered a few stellar examples of avian faithfulness, as Australian ravens, mute swans, and several species of geese—and especially albatrosses—were found to rank among those birds with the lowest “divorce rates” (23, 24). They even appear to enjoy better conjugal success than human couples in the U.S.! So perhaps albatrosses are the birds most worthy of our adulation on Valentine’s Day, even if they fail to receive proper due in Chaucer’s poem.
- Seipel, A. “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day”, 2/13/2011. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day.
- Tearle, O.M. “The Literary Origins of Valentine’s Day”, 2/13/2014. Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness: http://interestingliterature.com/2014/02/13/the-literary-origins-of-valentines-day/.
- Simpson, J. “Valentines”. The Folklore Society (of London): http://www.folklore-society.com/miscellany/valentines.
- Chaucer, G. “The Parliament of Fowls”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Online Archive): http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/08Fowls_1_17.pdf.
- Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 37.
- Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 47.
- Tate, P. p. 37.
- Tate, P. p. 37.
- Mastin, L. “Passer, Deliciae Meae Puellae” (Catullus 2). Classical Literature: http://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_catullus_2.html.
- Eugenides, J. “Excerpt: ’My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead’”, 2/13/2008. NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18927224.
- Chaucer, G. The Parliament of Fowls. Kline, A.S., (translator) Poetry in Translation: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/Fowls.htm.
- Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. p. 146.
- Chamberlain, S. “Parrot History: Yesterday & Today”, 10/21/2013. Bird Channel: http://www.birdchannel.com/bird-news/bird-entertainment/bird-history.aspx.
- Armstrong, E.A. p. 203.
- Williams, J. “Cuckolds, horns, and other explanations”, 7/4/2009. BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/8133615.stm.
- Tate, P. p. 29.
- “Duck”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duck.
- “Lovey-dovey”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lovey-dovey.
- Tearle, O.M.
- Milius, S. “When Birds Divorce: Who splits, who benefits, and who gets the nest” http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/birddivorce.html.
- “Who’s the daddy?”, British Trust for Ornithology: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/behaviour/infidelity.
- Krulwich, R. “Introducing A Divorce Rate For Birds, And Guess Which Bird Never, Ever Divorces?”, 4/22/2014. Krulwich Wonders, NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/04/22/305582368/introducing-a-divorce-rate-for-birds-and-guess-which-bird-never-ever-divorces.
- Milius, S.
- Krulwich, R.