Love birds and yarrow

February brings the first stirrings of a new spring, and with it the annual custom of Valentine’s Day. As Aphra Behn said, ‘Love ceases to be a pleasure, when it ceases to be a secret’, so join Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, authors of A Dictionary of English Folklore, as they explore the fascinating history of this celebration of anonymous declarations of love.

For today's adolescents and young adults, this is a highly popular festival, bolstered by the powerful greetings-card industry and huge media coverage.

Love Birds

The custom of choosing sweethearts on Valentine's Day arose in court circles in France and England in the 14th century, supposedly because birds began mating on this date. Poems were composed for the event, the earliest being Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (c.1381), about rival bird-suitors quarrelling on Valentine's Day. Some 30 years later, the poet John Lydgate used the word ‘valentine’ both for the person loved and the poem sent, as in modern English (‘A Valantine to Her That Excelleth All’, and ‘A Kalendare’); in 1477, Margery Brews wrote to her fiancé John Paston as her ‘right wellbelovyd Voluntyn’. Why this particular date was chosen is uncertain. Most likely, it counted as the first day of spring in whichever French region invented the custom (many medieval calendars reckoned spring began in February, either on the 7th or the 22nd). There is nothing in legends about St Valentine to link him with birds or lovers, nor any evidence supporting an 18th-century theory deriving the festival from the Roman Lupercalia (15 February).

Upper-class Valentine customs are well documented, but there is little information about the rest of society before 19th-century folklore collections; it is quite feasible that most people took little notice of the day until quite late on. Emphasis has changed over time, but the main elements have been:

  • choosing someone to be your ‘Valentine’ by lot, by accident, or deliberately
  • gifts
  • letters or cards, signed or anonymous
  • love divinations

Pepys gives excellent descriptions of 17th-century Valentines, rarely failing to mention the day; the details varied from year to year, showing the custom was fluid. His entries for 1666, for example, include references to drawing Valentines by lot, and complaints about the expense of several presents he felt obliged to give the lady who had drawn him, for example ‘a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings’ as late as 10 March. More modest gifts, sometimes anonymous, are mentioned in 19th-century accounts; thus, at Norwich, people laid packages on doorsteps, banged the knocker, and rushed away. Besides genuine presents there was a tradition of sending joky ones, or worthless items grandly wrapped.

Sending special letters probably dates from the mid-18th century, and grew steadily more popular. Special writing paper was available in the 1820s; the commercially produced card appeared around 1840, and by the 1860s was big business. Early examples are exquisite, expensive confections in lace and satin, but more down-market printed cards gradually became the norm—along with joke parodies and spiteful anti-Valentines. These are often held responsible for the decline of the custom around the turn of the century; it began to pick up again in the late 1920s, and mushroomed after the Second World War. Currently Valentine's Day is going from strength to strength.

Other customs and beliefs include, naturally, girls' love charms and divinations, for example putting yarrow under one's pillow or turning stockings inside out. It was widely said that the first person seen would be one's future spouse, and various strategies were adopted to manipulate this omen; in 1662, Mrs Pepys spent the day with her hands over her eyes to avoid seeing some painters working in her house. Children in many areas took occasion to go from door to door in the early morning, singing ‘Good morrow, Valentine’, and expecting cakes, fruit, or money.

Taken from ‘Valentine’s Day’ in A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud.