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Feb. 14 May Once Have Been a Rite of Spring

February 14, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aroint ye, varlots! That's old English for "Outa here, twerps." And that's our word to the Love Curmudgeons who surface each year to blight the one day that America devotes to . . . Love.

The curmudgeons think Valentine's Day is a crass, commercial holiday invented by makers of cards, candy, plush bears and heart-decked undies--all to earn a few extra bucks.

Untrue, we say.

Valentine's Day was invented not by businessmen but by bards. It is an honest homage to the joyous heart, to the soaring spirit that inspires love songs and poetry, to an emotion that has survived throughout the ages, resisting all attempts to analyze and deconstruct it.

And we know the man who can prove it.

Professor Henry Ansgar Kelly, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCLA, has spent years pursuing the origins and history of Valentine's Day. He remains a true believer after all these years, he says, not just in the celebration, but in the whole spirit of the thing.

A day spent honoring Love, Kelly says, "fills a human need" that has existed since time began, since man first laid eyes on woman. (Or, in some cases, on another man.)

After decades spent poring over ancient manuscripts, Kelly's big breakthrough occurred in 1986, with publication of his theory that Valentine's Day as a celebration of love was "invented" by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), who meant it to take place in May.

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To arrive at this conclusion, Kelly traveled back in time to 1381. That's when Chaucer attended the May 3 engagement of Richard II, (then age 14) to Anne of Bohemia, sister of the Holy Roman Emperor, who at 15 was considered an "older woman."

Richard fell "head over heels" in love with Anne. Their marriage was so profoundly happy, Kelly says, that when Anne died 13 years later, the distraught Richard tore down the castle in which she had perished.

He kept her body with him for weeks, burying her only after celebrating the feast day he had ordained in her honor when she was still alive--a feast day long since forgotten.

The poet Chaucer, inspired by the couple's devotion to each other, found a way to memorialize them much more permanently. He wrote a poem, still studied in medieval-lit courses, called "The Parliament of Fowls." In it, he decreed a special date to honor all lovers. That date was May 3, chosen because it was the one on which Anne and Richard had become engaged. It also happened to be one of many holidays on church calendars devoted to St. Valentine.

In that era, Kelly says, there were more than 50 separate saints named Valentine--and each had at least one day devoted to him. But none of the St. Valentines had ever been associated with love or romance. Thus Chaucer (best known for his "Canterbury Tales") became the first to link a St. Valentine's Day with a celebration of love.

Chaucer's poem was the first of many he wrote mentioning the May date as a day to honor lovers. Other poets followed suit. Inevitably, the lovers' holiday became intertwined with the saint. It was a spring event, Kelly says, timed to the season when birds begin to sing, when flowers and romance start to bloom.

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It continued that way until 1400, the year in which Chaucer died. That's when a depressed Queen Isabel of France, eager to cheer up her frigid, plague-wracked realm, tossed a fabulous festival to honor Love and its patron saint, Valentine.

But she set the date at Feb. 14, another of the church's St. Valentine days. Because she was queen and could do what she wanted, she claimed the Feb. 14 date as the official Valentine's Day. And so it was, forever more. Let's face it, who could argue with a queen?

Kelly can and does. "She got it all wrong," he says. To celebrate St. Valentine's Day in winter "is totally inappropriate. It's a mistake to put all this love business in February because, as everyone knows, spring is when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." (He was quoting Tennyson here.) "Spring is when it is supposed to be," he continues, with just a tiny tinge of petulance in his voice.

Kelly--who has written 11 books on medieval life and poetry, two of which are about love and St. Valentine--has been trying to get some action on the matter, he says. He's even proposed switching Mother's Day to February and Valentine's Day to May. That would put the lovers together in spring, and give them almost exactly nine months until they could celebrate parenthood on a February Mother's Day. Get it?

But the cads who make cards and candy hearts have been slow to take note. Kelly tried writing to Hallmark, he adds, but received not even a rhyme of reply. And the odds are that only he and perhaps a few other romantics of his academic ilk would take it upon themselves to switch the holidays. In fact, even Kelly hasn't the heart to completely break with tradition. So he celebrates Valentine's Day with Marea, his wife of 32 years, in both February and May.

Prof. Kelly will discuss Valentine's Day at UCLA today, Royce Hall, Room 314, from noon to 1 p.m.

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