Senior Tutor, Matthew Uffindell, reflects on memorable St. Valentine’s Days in the past and gives a refreshing way to spend this year’s day of love.
We may feel more in tune with modern notions by pondering on the associations with ancient fertility rites, the Roman Lupercalia, or considering Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382) and the legend that St. Valentine’s is the day every bird chooses a mate.
The Independent on Thursday 9th February 2012 reported on the practice of 19th century Taiwanese aborigines taking human heads to present to lovers or wives as ritual wooing or bridal celebrations (this, according to the Royal Botanic Gardens archives at Kew).
Such grisliness could not be matched in the 20th century, surely? Well, horribly ironic are the events of 14th February 1929 in Chicago – the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the era of Prohibition, and seven mobsters were lined up against a wall of a garage at 2122 North Clark Street, and shot. The slaughter was part of the turf war between the two controlling gangs of Chicago: Al Capone’s South Side Italian gang and the North Side Irish gang led by Bugs Moran.
However, St. Valentine’s Day in the 21st century is likely to be dominated by teddy bears, red velvet hearts and messages like ‘Honey Bee loves Squidgy Sugar Plum’. And whether you see the sentimentalism of St. Valentine’s Day as endearing depends on how sweet a tooth you have – but it’s certainly enduring. Instead of human heads, gifts are likely to take the form of pricey flowers, chocolates or romantic dinners – red roses are de rigueur. A late 18th century rhyme reminds us of the formulaic but lasting combination of romance, flowers and food:
The rose is red, the violet is blue
The honey is sweet, and so are you.
It was the cost element that seemed to have been on Samuel Pepys’s mind. Pepys, now famous for his diary, writes in 1666/67:
‘This morning come up to my wife’s bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s Valentine, and it will cost me 5l.; but that I must have laid out if we had not been Valentines.’
Pepys’s £5 would be the equivalent of about £400, but striking also is Pepys and his wife’s joint admiration of ‘little’ Will Mercer’s Valentine message.
However, for this St. Valentine’s Day, I have a suggestion: take an hour to visit the Bodleian Library’s exhibition The Romance of the Middle Ages (http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about/exhibitions). If you really want to witness the flowering of romance, you will see here examples of love, loyalty, deceit, death, madness, travel and magic that should fill the rest of your day with adventure and passion, and meet all expectations of how you think the enthusiastic lover should (and should not) behave – and enough intrigue and revenge for even Al Capone.
Many of the manuscripts and printed texts have embedded within them jewel-like illustrations. One of my favourites is in the 15th century copy of the 13th century poem Le Roman de la Rose, showing the God of Love laying siege to the castle which holds the rose itself. The God of Love might seem a particularly apt figure to represent the day. Although when you see him, grim-faced and surrounded by bristling spears and the threatening poses of archers and cavalry of his military expedition, you might reflect on the dangers of romance as well as its obvious charms.
Closer to the spirit of our current perceptions of St. Valentine’s Day is in another book, touchingly illustrating a man presenting a book to a lady. The message reads ‘Prenes engre’ (which the exhibition guide translates as ‘take [this book] with pleasure’), and below which are the entwined letters spelling out: ‘Maid Maria’.
However the perfect touch for St. Valentine’s Day is the handwritten addition, inserted by a later owner of the book, William Fitzwilliam. After the text (a romance poem The Earl of Toulouse which involves the difficulties of a loyal wife) he has copied a recipe ‘to macke a good povdynge’.
Nearly a thousand years of romance literature is a wonderful way to reflect on the ingredients required for a modern wooing and the making of a romantically rewarding day.