Valentine’s Day: the true origins of this romantic tradition

Canterbury Cathedral, the setting for Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' -

Valentine’s Day may be a celebration with pre-Christian origins, but Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to connect the tradition with romantic love…

The celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day, also known as Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, on 14 February each year, is a tradition dating all the way back to the 5th century.

Geoffrey Chaucer, however, the poet and author, was the first to link the day with romantic love.

History of St Valentine’s Day

St Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of several Christian saints named Valentinus, with several martyrdom stories invented for the various Valentines that belonged to 14 February.

In ancient Rome, 13, 14 and 15 February were celebrated as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival.

valentines day
Geoffrey Chaucer

But the day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of medieval author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. Known as the Father of English literature, Chaucer is best known for writing The Canterbury Tales, but is lesser known for all but ‘inventing’ St Valentine’s Day when he made the first reference to its as a romantic occasion.

He did so in his poem Parlement of Foules, published in 1382, when he wrote:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”

“For this was on St Valentine’s Day
When every bird comes there to choose his mate”

Through linking the day with romance, Chaucer was reflecting a belief in the Middle Ages that February 14 was the first day of the bird mating season, therefore it was an appropriate day for the young to express their love.

By the time it reached 18th-century England, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their adoration for each other by presenting flowers, confectionery, and sending greeting cards. In the centuries since, the tradition has morphed into its modern commercial incarnation as a day of limitless hearts, chocolates, flowers and jewellery.

Looking for somewhere to whisk your valentine away to? Read our guide to Britain’s most romantic retreats here.