Archaeology South-East


“For this was on seynt Valentynes day…” A Middle English Expression of Love

14 February 2021

Another literary blog post, this time on St Valentine's Day, from lover of Rom-Coms and Middle English texts Lorna Webb.

A drawing of a couple embracing on a manuscript. British Library Stowe 17 f. 143


I love a good romantic comedy. I went through a phase where I am pretty certain I had watched every Rom-Com on Netflix. The predictable fundamentals of the plots, with characters who meet, grow to like each other, have a misunderstanding, and then fall in love, were fun to watch never seem to get old. When we look at romance films, tv series, books, going back all the way to the early 1800’s to the novels of Jane Austen, these themes and plot lines do not really change. The culture around the characters changes with time, but the fundamentals of two people falling in love stay the same.

Casting our eye back further still, literature from classical civilisations such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans use the theme of love in many tales. Perhaps the best known classical love story is in The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War. The doomed love of Helen and Paris sparks friction in both the mortal world and the divine, and the pairing of Achilles and Patroclus, ending in tragedy, drives the best and worst of the human feeling (Fantuzzi 2012). These pairings, and others in classical literature, explore different types of love; romantic, friendship and loyalty. The Aeneid also reflects these themes in the characters of Dido and Aeneas with their doomed love affair (Farron 1993). These characters reflect passion and commitment and symbolise a certain type of “respectable love”, which classical cultures wrote about.

Middle English Love

The medieval writers of the Middle English period were lovers of classical literature. The Pearl poet even name drops the Trojan War in the introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and stories such as The Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales are set in a classical background. This being said, medieval writers moved the romance genre on not only to reflect a “respectable love” or epic love stories but to encompass all types of love, particularly within the cultural background of Medieval Catholicism (Galloway 2011).

Romantic or Courtly Love

It is impossible to write about the theme of love in middle English prose without mentioning Arthurian legend. Tales of charming knights rescuing damsels in distress was quite commonplace, Le Morte D’Arthur being among the most well-known. In the famous love triangle of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, the connection to classical tales is clear to see. However, when you read these tales more closely you will see that there is a ‘right way’ to be in love.

These tales showed the ideal, the best way to live a life that is chivalric, and part of that life is how you conduct your “courtly love”. From the Old French term “fin’amor” which literally translates to “fine love”, courtly love was an early form of romantic poetry. There are many examples of courtly love in Le Morte D’Arthur, particularly between Lancelot and Guinevere. Most of these tales centre on Lancelot fighting for his lady above God and rescuing her from danger. However, because of the adulterous nature of their relationship, courtly love is shown as both Lancelot’s glory as well as his weakness (Archibald and Edwards 1996).

Medieval writers had to also make their love stories Catholic-friendly, and this meant there was a strong moral principal, especially in courtly love tales. An example of this is a poem called Roman de la Rose, which is written in French and describes a tale of courtly love as well as an allegorical Christian journey.

These tales of love show a connection between the theme of love and love in a ‘faith’ sense. This can be seen throughout medieval writers when they discuss relationships.

The Chaucerian depiction of Love

The first recorded mention of love being celebrated on Valentine’s day is from a tale attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer called The Parliament of Fowls. Written in the late fourteenth century, it describes a tale where birds come together in early spring or on Valentine’s Day to choose their mates.

For this was on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make (The Riverside Chaucer, line 308-310).

It is interesting to note that the religious factor of Saint Valentine is plain to see and this makes the use of the day more acceptable in the medieval reader’s eyes. As a member of the English Court and well versed in both Latin and French, Chaucer would have been aware of the respectability and the act of courtly love which in the Canterbury Tales Chaucer plays on.

There are many depictions of love in the Canterbury Tales. The first tale told in the poem is that by the Knight and is a standard courtly love romance, complete with classical setting and a plot line which deals with a love triangle.

And now thou woldest falsly been aboute/ To love my lady, whom I love and serve/ And evere shal, til that myn herte sterve./ Nay, certes, false Arcite, thow shalt nat so!/ I loved hire first, and tolde thee my wo (The Knight’s Tale, lines 284-287)
And now you would all falsely go about/ To love my lady, whom I love and serve,/ And shall while life my heart's blood may preserve./ Nay, false Arcita, it shall not be so./ I loved her first, and told you all my woe

The second tale in the Canterbury Tales however is a satirical look at courtly love, known as a fabliau. Told by the Miller and known as The Miller’s Tale, the story is about another love triangle but this time the setting is fourteenth century Oxford, and the love triangle centres around the stupidity of the two men involved.

She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,/ For any lord to leggen in his bedde,/ Or yet for any good yeman to wedde. (The Miller’s Tale, lines 160-162)
She was a primrose, and a tender chicken/ For any lord to lay upon his bed,/ Or yet for any good yeoman to wed.

The Miller’s Tale involves a good deal of more, urh, initimate relations, and is a satirical comparison to The Knight’s Tale.

Chaucer depicts the theme of love in a very relatable human way. In its cultural background of Medieval Catholicism, courtly love and allegorical semantic fields, Chaucer writes a series of medieval romantic comedies! What makes these clever is the way that the theme of love, though used as both something to be laughed at and a serious issue, is always framed against religious or divine love.

Divine Love

As many pieces of Middle English writings would have been copied down by nuns and monks from religious orders the third type of love that appears in medieval literature is that of divine love. The importance of divine love in medieval society is based on the teachings of Jesus and in medieval society can be seen by how the monasteries looked after the lay peoples. They would do this by, for example, offering alms, caring for the sick and poor, and of course devoting themselves to God so society could function. In Middle English texts divine love is a presence that is always there but isn’t outwardly or explicitly explored unless in an allegorical sense.

Julian of Norwich’s work Revelations of Divine Love (held in the British Library, MS Sloane 2499) shows the powerful fulfilment of divine love with words such as the allegorical vision of a hazelnut.

"And in þis he shewed me a lytil thyng þe quantite of a hasyl nott. lyeng in þe pawme of my hand as it had semed. and it was as rownde as eny ball. I loked þer upon wt þe eye of my vnderstondyng. and I þought what may þis be. and it was answered generally thus. It is all þat is made. I merueled howe it myght laste. for me þought it myght sodenly haue fall to nought for lytyllhed. & I was answered in my vnderstondyng. It lastyth & euer shall for god louyth it. and so hath all thyng his begynning by þe loue of god. In this lytyll thyng I sawe thre propertees. The fyrst is. þt god made it. þe secunde is þet god louyth it. & þe þrid is. þat god kepith it." Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter V
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus: 'It is all that is made.' I wondered how it could last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing for little cause. And I was answered in my understanding: 'It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God.' In this little thing I saw three properties; the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God keeps it.

Unlike the human emotion and passion of courtly love or the humour of the romance found in a fabliaux, this view of love is more tranquil and serves the more peaceful love and indulges medieval Christianity at its highest level, that of the mysteries of the divine which includes that of love.


In the history of romance novels and the theme of love, medieval literature shows its versatile nature. It can be sophisticated, with the 'perfect' example of romantic love between men as chivalric knights with moral codes and ladies who are beautiful and respectful, or the literature can less formal, with human beings experiencing the rush of passion and lust. Medieval literature also gives the religious allegorical alternative showing both the good and the bad and the philosophical way to live. These themes and stories show progression from the classical world and a bridge to the sonnets of Shakespeare, where after the English reformation, religion has taken a back seat and the more passionate expressions can be used. However, as a process the fine balance between right and wrong, respectful and unrespectful love continues as a literary theme to this day.

Further Reading

  • The British Library’s look at courtly love and chivalry can be found here.
  • Dr Janina Ramirez explores the manuscript of Julian of Norwich, here.
  • Find out more about the Canterbury Tales and the Kelmscott Chaucer and the beautiful prints it contains, here.


Header image from British Library Stowe 17 f. 143

Archibald, E, & Edwards, A, 1996. A companion to Malory. Boydell and Brewer ltd. Bury St Edmunds.

Fantuzzi, M, 2012. Achilles in Love, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farron, S, 1993. Vergil's Aeneid: a poem of grief and love, New York: E.J. Brill.

Galloway, A, 2011. The Cambridge companion to medieval English culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.