The Earliest Valentine?

Trinity College, Cambridge, R.2.70, recto.

 

In this world of instant messages and emojis, we rarely have cause to put pen to paper. If you are finding it difficult to convey your feelings in a Valentine’s Day card this year, take heart (and inspiration) from this fifteenth-century Middle English poem recently re-discovered in Trinity College Cambridge.

Susane the secunde, patron of plesaunce 1

That called is so throwe alle lumbardye,

Righte demure of chere and of contenaunce,

And in daunsyng, sport and curtesie,

Wele demeand and lady of venerye:

Remembre your servaunt that righte true is;

With that reward not disdayne hym to kys.

And of youre gentilnes se that he

This frosty wedir be nat lost for colde,

And that not defawte in you founde be; 10

So that in somer it may be said and tolde

Ye kept him warm with your armys folde,

And with the chere that ye hym made

Fulle ofte ye made his hart righte glade.

Nowe redres of alle my sorowes smert, 15

That righte true be withouten variaunce,

I you biseche, with sore wounded hert;

Me counforte throwe youre daliaunce,

And of my body take youre plesaunce;

And kepe it secret and not disclose 20

Whome to be true I can suppose.

By him that in forestes walkethe wyde

Where noone may passe with out his gyd,

Nor kene may in dale nor doune

But that he is other blake or broune. 25

 

In her detailed review of this poem, Julia Boffey explains that these 25 lines of Middle English verse present a ‘humorously uneven’ tone that seems to poke fun at the clichés of contemporary courtly love poetry. The poem is addressed to Susane who is praised for her ‘pleasunce’, ‘gentilness’ and ‘curtesie’ by an anonymous admirer but is also revered as a ‘lady of venerye’: a mistress of hunting or sexual activity. The poem also refers to the couples’ ‘daliaunce’ and ends with a call for discretion, further adding to the sexual undertone of the verse. Like many modern-day Valentine’s cards, the admirer maintains his anonymity but offers a clue as to his real name in the final four lines.

Below the verse is a painted red heart, pierced by two red arrows. While bleeding hearts occur with some frequency in devotional contexts its appearance in this secular poem is somewhat unusual. The interplay between religious imagery and secular verse demonstrated in this poem is also briefly explored by Boffey in other forms of material culture such as ‘posey rings’. A beautiful example is the early fifteenth-century ring found at Godstow Abbey which has a secular verse inscribed on the inside but is decorated with images of the Virgin on the outside.

While this poem does not make a direct reference to St Valentine, Boffey argues that the poems’ allusions to the seasons ‘do not preclude the possibility that it was conceived as a Valentine’s day gesture’. Similarly, we cannot be certain that this poem changed hands in the form of a missive; yet, this fragment still raises the intriguing possibility that such poems were produced for personal delivery and not conceived simply as components of social ‘courtly love’ games. Thus, while the vogue for sending Valentine’s Day cards started in the late eighteenth century, this fifteenth-century love poem is testimony to practices of amorous exchange well before the commercialisation of St Valentine’s Day.

 

Boffey, Julia. ‘A Middle English Poem on a Binding Fragment: an Early Valentine?’, Review of English Studies 67 (2016), 844-854.

 

Further Reading:

Camargo, Martin. The Middle English Verse Love Epistle (Tübingen, 1991).

Kelly, Henry Ansagar. Chaucer and the Cult of St Valentine (Leiden, 1986).

O’Hara, Diana. Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester, 2000).

Oruch, Jack B. ‘St Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February’, Speculum 56 (1981), 534-565.

Staff, Frank. The Valentine and its Origins (London, 1969).

Webb, Ruth Lee. The History of Valentines (London, 1953).

 

History in Our Hands

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Steep Hill

Every Wednesday morning the MA Medieval Studies group has a session at the Cathedral Centre at the top of Steep Hill. Although it was overcast on this particular Wednesday, walking into our 9am session is always awe-inspiring as the Cathedral Centre (a beautiful thirteenth-century building in its own right) boasts an amazing view of  the Cathedral’s West Front as well as the Castle: the two pillars of  Lincoln’s medieval heritage!

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Brut’s Chronicle

We are currently studying Palaeography with Prof. Philippa Hoskin which (while initially daunting) is fascinating and unlike anything I attempted during my undergraduate degree. Thanks to Lincoln’s unique resources we are able to use medieval manuscripts from the Cathedral Library, giving us valuable hands on experience with items we don’t usually get the opportunity to interact with. This week we transcribed a fifteenth-century passage from Brut’s Chronicle by taking it in turns to hold and read aloud from the original manuscript. It definitely adds an element of ‘realness’ when you are able to hold 600 years of history in your hands!

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Medievalists Outside the Cathedral Archives

Being so immersed in medieval history is well worth the early morning walk up Steep Hill; but, we usually decide to treat ourselves to a cup of tea and a slice of cake on the way down!