UCLA Spotlight


Henry Ansgar Kelly, Valentine's Day

  • By Meg Sullivan
  • Published Feb 1, 2001 8:00 AM

If you still haven't posted a Valentine to your loved one, take heart. According to a renowned medieval scholar at UCLA, you still have more than 70 shopping days 'til Valentine's Day. “There's no big rush,” said Henry Ansgar Kelly.

After thoroughly investigating the holiday's history, the director of UCLA's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has found that the Day of Love was, um, conceived for celebration on May 3 — not Feb. 14.

"The confusion helps explain why, for most of the Northern Hemisphere, such Valentine's Day staples as fresh flowers and lovebirds just aren't consistent with this time of year," said Kelly.

It wasn't until the 14th century that Valentine's Day became associated with romance. Kelly credits English author Geoffrey Chaucer with making the love connection.

The year was 1381, and the author best known for The Canterbury Tales was employed in the court of Richard II. Chaucer's boss had managed to edge out two competitors — a French prince and a German nobleman — for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. On May 3, the king announced their engagement.

Chaucer marked the first anniversary of the occasion by writing The Parliament of Fowls, a poem that suggests parallels between human courtship and the mating rituals of birds.

"All the wonderful springtime imagery that we associate with the holiday can be found in this poem," said Kelly. As was customary in his time, Chaucer strove to associate the date with a saint's feast day. Relying on contacts made eight years earlier on a diplomatic mission to Italy, Chaucer learned that May 3 was the feast day of St. Valentine in Genoa.

Even in Chaucer's time, church calendars earmarked Feb. 14 for celebrating St. Valentine. But the poet may have thought that saint was the same as the Genoese one. Chaucer ended up writing three more Valentine's Day poems, all of them in keeping with an early May date.

The shift of the day of lovers to Feb. 14 occurred shortly before the poet's death in 1400, Kelly found. Once established as a day for romance, Feb. 14 began to attract imagery that had been associated with love since antiquity, including hearts and cupids.

So what's the historically correct romantic to do?

Follow Kelly's lead — he and his wife of 32 years, Marea, will be celebrating romance both on Feb. 14 and May 3.