It appears that not only is Geoffrey Chaucer the “Father of modern English” but his is also the Father of our modern thoughts on love. In his poem “The Parliament of Fowls”, comprising of 700 lines, Chaucer linked the Christian feast day of St Valentine’s with the concept of romance for the very first time. The poem was written in 1381 in honour of the engagement between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia and links the royal engagement, the mating season of birds and St Valentine’s Day.
The Parliament of Fowls is written as a dream vision, a literary form that became very popular during the 13th century. While Chaucer’s dream poems, of which The Parliament of Fowls is one, dealt with love, personal loss, the common profit and fame many of Chaucer’s contemporaries combined dream vision with allegory to deal with more philosophical topics in response to the massive religious, social and economic changes that took place in England from 1350 onwards as a consequence of the high mortality rate caused by the Black Death. Post Black Death England was characterised by an abandonment of the countryside by agricultural workers, periods of famine, sudden growth of urban areas and the development of a new mercantile class.
Regardless of content, medieval dream visions or dream allegories shared the following three features:
- a prologue depicting the circumstances leading up to the dream by the narrator;
- a dream account of the events occurring in the dream itself; and
- the appearance in the dream of a male or female authority figure who gives the dreamer guidance about some aspect of his life or teaches him some spiritual or philosophical truth.
The prologue to The Parliament of Fowls starts with Chaucer diligently reading an old book all day long. He has been told that old books bring new wisdom. The book he is reading is entitled “The Dream of Scipio” by Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) and the story of the dream contained in the book is retold by Chaucer.
The Dream of Scipio describes a fictional dream vision of the Roman General Scipio Aemilianus and is set two years before he commanded at the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. The dream depicts Scipio, upon his arrival in Africa, being visited by his dead grandfather who stresses his duty as a loyal Roman soldier and advises that he will be rewarded after death for his services. In the dream, however, Scipio sees that Rome is actually an insignificant part of the earth which is dwarfed by the stars. A philosophical discussion regarding the nature of the Divine, the soul and virtue ensues. The Dream of Scipio was a highly regarded text during Chaucer’s time and he featured it in his own work as homage to Cicero. According to scholars, the parallels between The Dream of Scipio and The Parliament of Fowls are not that clear other than that The Dream of Scipio deals with the nature of the universe while The Parliament of Fowls deals with a small part of that universe.
Librarius.com (http://www.librarius.com/parliamentfs.htm) describes the plot of The Parliament of Fowls as follows:
“The plot is about the narrator who dreams that he passes through a beautiful landscape, through the dark temple of Venus to the bright sunlight. Dame Nature sees over a large flock of birds who are gathered to choose their mates. The birds have a parliamentary debate while three male eages try to seduce a female bird. The debate is full of speeches and insults. At the end, none of the three eagles wins the female eagle. The dream ends welcoming the coming Spring.”
This post started off as an investigation into the origins of St Valentine’s Day and ended up with me investigating Chaucer’s love birds and reading the original text of the poem (with some difficulty and tenacity) and the modern translation (with much more ease and pleasure). Ain’t life grand!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
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