Happy Valentine’s Day

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Isn’t this a pretty valentine? It’s a handmade “puzzle card” from 1790, on display at the Postal Museum in London. The verse around the edge reads,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

But that’s not all of it. You can see where the heart unfolds. Here is the unfolded paper:

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Before printing became economical, greeting cards were made by hand, like the one above. The ancient Egyptians sent affectionate notes on papyrus scrolls; the Germans made woodcarvings; and the Chinese sent New Year blessings on paper, which they invented. Sending greetings on Valentine’s Day came along later, probably in the fifteenth century.

You’ve probably heard the story that this holiday celebrates a priest named Valentine, who was imprisoned for secretly performing wedding ceremonies of Roman soldiers who had been forbidden that act because it took their mind away from their duty. It’s a nice legend, but purely fiction. Roman soldiers were never forbidden to marry, so there was no need of secret ceremonies.

There were actually at least 3 Saints named Valentine (or Valentinus), but the most well-known was a Christian who was said to have passed out hearts cut from parchment paper, with Bible verses about God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation written on them. He was arrested and interrogated, but instead of confessing, he tried to convert his interrogator. For this he was sentenced to death; but, he supposedly performed the miracle of healing the blind daughter of his jailer before his execution, which caused her and 44 others to convert to Christianity. Legend says he had fallen in love with this daughter, and wrote her a farewell letter signed “from your Valentine.”

The earliest known reference to Valentine’s Day comes from a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame). The poem, titled Parliament of Foules (Assembly of Birds), was written in 1382 to celebrate the one year anniversary of King Richard III’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. It describes a dream in which a man is taken into the netherworld, where Nature has assembled all the birds and they are choosing mates. The pertinent lines read,

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 cometh there to choose his mate.)

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Parliament of Foules

It ends with a separate poem welcoming spring which contains these lines:

Saint Valentine, who art throned aloft –
Thus sing the small birds for your sake –
Welcome summer, with your sunshine soft,
That this winter’s tempest does off-shake.

Three other poets mentioned birds choosing mates on Valentine’s Day around the same time as Chaucer, so it was evidently an established tradition; but, there is no record of how this idea began, although some claim that it dates back to the early Roman spring festival of Lupercalia. It was long believed that birds mated for life. Ma Ingalls even told her daughters that, as Carrie later related in a letter of memories. Today, we know that while a feathered couple may bond for a season or longer, monogamous mating for life is pretty rare among them.

The earliest known narrative of a Valentine’s Day celebration is in Charter of the Court of Love issued by Charles VI of France. It describes feasting, music, dancing, poetry, and jousting; but the highlight was the “court” held by royal females, who heard “cases” of lovers’ disputes and ruled on them. There is no official record of such festivities, and it is believed that Charles’ wife, Queen Isabeau, may have created the Charter from her own imaginings.

court

Court of Love festival

The earliest known surviving valentine is a farewell letter written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The original is written in French. Below is the best translation I could find:

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too late,
And I for you was born too soon.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
Well might I have suspected
That such a destiny
Thus would happen this day,
How much love would command.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.

Personally, I think the “sick of love” (which is also often translated “tired of love”) would be more accurate as “love-sick” or “sick with love.” That may not be the literal meaning of his words, but there are entire books written about how Charles’ works and words are so stylistically unique that they are virtually un-translatable. Love-sick is defined as “missing the person one loves, so much that one is unable to act normally,” and that fits the meaning of the poem more, I believe.

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Charles writing in the Tower of London

The earliest extant English-language valentines are two letters written in February,1744 by a young lady letting her suitor know that she was anxious to marry him. Margery Brews wrote to John Paston,

Ryght reverent and wurschypfull, and my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn…

I said it was English, but not that it was modern English. 😉 She goes on to tell him that she’s unwell from anxiety over him, and asks him not to leave her but to come settle the matter with her father, ensuring him that she would still want him even if he had only half his livelihood, and that she would always be true to him.

His reply to her letter is not preserved, but we know he did answer because her next letter, which begins, as before, to Right worshipful and well-beloved Valentine, thanks him for it, and for his promise to “have a conclusion” with her father. She writes that she would be “the happiest creature alive” if it “comes to effect,” but will be “most sorry and full of heaviness” if not.

pastonletter-wl

She also tells him to be prepared that her father will not increase her dowry: “I let you plainly understand that my father will no more money part with in that behalf,” but if he “could be content with that good, and my poor person, I would be the merriest maiden on the ground.” She begs her “good, true, Valentine” to be satisfied so that she may be his “true lover and bedwoman during her life,” and signs it “by your Valentine, Margery.”

Pretty forward for a fifteenth-century lady. Luckily for Margery, her Valentine did have a conclusion with her father.

Here’s another handmade Valentine, from about 1800.

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The note around edge says,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain.

Like the first one in this post, this card also unfolds, and a pinwheel gives more love:

My dearest dear and blest divine
I’ve pictured here thy heart and mine

But Cupid with his fatal dart
hath deeply wounded my poor heart

And has betwixt us set a cross
Which makes me lament my loss

But now I hope when this is gone
That our two hearts will join in one.

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But wait – there’s more! Unfold further, and the following is revealed.

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The center verse, around the circle and ring of flowers, says:

My heart is true to none but you
My heart I hope you will pursue
The roses and the lillies twine
Since you became my Valentine.

Round is my ring and has no end
So is my love unto my friend

Think of the work it took to make this token of affection!

Here is the oldest extant commercially-printed Valentine’s Day card.

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From 1797 London, the verse (see it along the edge of the garland?) reads,

Since on this ever Happy day
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.

I’ll conclude with this unusual way to let one’s beloved know of one’s feelings – a handkerchief, with love verses printed onto it. It was made in France in 1793.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Connie Ryle Neumann on February 14, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    This was a lovely look at love notes in the Valentine tradition. Happy St. Valentine’s Day to you!

    Reply

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