Thursday, 14 February 2013

Valentine's Day 500 Years Before Moonpig

Happy Valentine's Day! Today we have Valentine's traditions like giving flowers, chocolates and personalised cards but what did people do 500 years ago? Interestingly many of today's customs originated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Valentine's Day has been celebrated for many hundreds of years and its romantic connotations are often believed to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Parlement of Foules', which was written in 1382. The poem was written to commemorate the anniversary of  King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia's engagement and it contains the lines:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day 
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. 

(For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.) 

Detail from a French manuscript dating from around 1330 where a lover wounded by cupid's
arrow pledges his heart to his beloved in order to heal it 
That was a very brief background history to Valentine's Day, but what did people do in medieval England? One tradition was for young (usually unmarried) men and women to draw the name of their valentine at random from a bowl and then wear the name pinned onto their clothes for a week as a declaration of their 'love'. Some believe that this is where the saying 'to wear your heart on your sleeve comes from'. The use of 'x' to represent a kiss is often thought to have originated in medieval times as the majority of common people were illiterate so if they were ever required to give a signature, for example if they were in court, they would sign with an 'X'. As a way of further expressing their sincerity they would then kiss the 'X', which led to the letter x becoming synonymous with a kiss. 

Original letter from Charles, Duke of Orléans
to his wife.
Written valentines originated in the 1400s with the earliest surviving written valentine being from Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife Bonne d'Armagnac. He wrote it from the Tower of London where he was imprisoned after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and it begins 'Je suis deja d'amour tanné, ma tres doulce Valentinée', which in English means 'I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine'. It is titled 'A farewell to love', which suggests that Charles doubted his chances of surviving his imprisonment. The earliest surviving valentines written in English are found in the Paston Letters and the earliest dates from 1477. It is written by Margaret Brewes to John Paston, who she refers to as 'my right well-beloved valentine'.

Miniature of Princess Mary Tudor wearing a gold brooch
in honour of the Emperor Charles V

Accounts of Princess Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon) and her household's Valentine's Day activities provide insight into upper class Tudor Valentine's traditions. In 1525, when she was nine years old, Mary and her household indulged in drawing Valentines. On this occasion Mary drew the name of Richard Sydnor, who was her aged treasurer of the privy chamber, and she seems to have enthusiastically followed the custom of staging a mock romance. In messages that she sent to him she called herself 'your wyfe' and referred to him as her 'husband adoptif'. Poor Sydnor seems to have suffered from gout and found it hard to keep up with his young 'wyfe' as Mary jokingly scolded him that 'ye take greater care of your goute...than ye do of your wyfe'.

Mary provides further insight into the Tudor practice of choosing valentines as in 1522 she chose Charles V as her valentine (probably at her mother's insistence) and wore a golden brooch which spelt out 'Charles' in jewels. The Lucas Horenbout miniature of Mary painted around this time depicts her with a golden brooch pinned to her bodice which spells out 'the Emperour'. Sweet as this may sound it would have been more of a diplomatic move than a romantic one as Mary was around nine when the miniature was painted and Charles was twenty-five.

Mary Tudor: the First Queen by Linda Porter
Mary Tudor: England's First Queen by Anna Whitelock

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