Valentine’s Day: Love, Pain and Poetry

wound of love

Ah, love is in the air with Valentine’s Day almost here. And while the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day is very much a modern phenomenon, the day itself has its origins in the Middle Ages.

True, very early foundations for the day can be found in the ancient Roman fertility Feast of Lupercalia which randomly paired young boys and girls in marriage; but it was the 14th century that gave us our current focus on romantic love. At that time, the West experienced a surge of interest in saints’ and martyrs’ legends. One very popular story was that of St Valentine, a priest of the 3rd century who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius II’s ban on the marrying of Christian couples, and proceeded to perform marriages in secret. For his efforts, St Valentine was executed in 278, and his feast day came to be celebrated on 14th February.  

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly of France and England) commonly believed that birds began their mating season on 14th February. In his Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls) the great Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the belief for posterity with the words:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

And Chaucer wrote a few love poems of his own. One of his best-known is Rondel of Merciless Beauty in which he described the impact of a woman’s beauty on him, and how it feels as if his heart is wounded with love.

There are three parts to this poem, each of thirteen lines. Here is the first part in Middle English and then in modern translation.

Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit throughout my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, while that hit is grene,
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey you faithfully
That ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene;
For with my deeth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth it throughout my herte kene.

Rondel of Merciless Beauty

Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

Only your word will heal the injury
To my hurt heart, while yet the wound is clean –
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene. 

Upon my word, I tell you faithfully
Through life and after death you are my queen;
For with my death the whole truth shall be seen.
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

The juxtaposing of love and pain was common in medieval poetry; and today we find that same blend in poetry, literature and films. Such pairing is, of course, the natural expression of the human experience of love and loss but, today, the pain is regarded as coming more at the end of a relationship than at the beginning. In the Middle Ages, and following the much earlier Roman mythological view,  Cupid (and his mother Venus) were presented as the initiators of love (and lust). Cupid would aim his bow and shoot an arrow not into the heart of the soon-to-be-lover but into his eye; that is, the object of his admiration was first pleasing to the eye (in a “love at first sight” way). After that, the heart, and the will, would acquiesce and act on the desire. You’ll notice that Chaucer plays with this “eye-heart” connection throughout the Merciless Beauty poem, and he also highlights the “wounding” and “slaying” aspect. This is especially interesting because “rondel” had another meaning in the Middle Ages. Then, a rondel was also a dagger with a very narrow and needle-pointed blade, perfect for thrusting into another’s heart for a swift and accurate kill.

Let’s hope you get all the love, and none of the pain, on this 14th February.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.

 

Love is in the Air

medieval-love-letter

In a few days time, the hearts, chocolates and premium-priced roses will be eagerly snapped up by lovers and would-be lovers, keen to demonstrate their devotion to the object of their affection. And while the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day is very much a modern phenomenon, the day itself has its origins in the Middle Ages.

True, very early foundations for the day can be found in the ancient Roman fertility Feast of Lupercalia which randomly paired young boys and girls in marriage; but it was the 14th century that gave us our current focus on romantic love. At that time, the West experienced a surge of interest in saints’ and martyrs’ legends. One very popular story was that of St Valentine, a priest of the 3rd century who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius II’s ban on the marrying of Christian couples, and proceeded to perform marriages in secret. For his efforts, St Valentine was executed in 278, and his feast day came to celebrated on 14th February.

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly in France and England) commonly believed that birds began their mating season on 14th February. In his Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls) the great Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the belief for posterity with the words:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

And there it was: the amorous nature of the day was set … for better or worse.