This is a guest post by Dr Rebecca Rushforth, a former Fellow of Corpus and colleague on the Parker on the Web Digitisation Project:
In the Middle Ages the saints’ days were such a noticeable part of the daily year that people often used them instead of dates. Rents might be due at Candlemas or Martinmas, for example, and the Cambridge autumn term is still called Michaelmas after the feast of St Michael on 29th November. Autumn term doesn’t have anything much to do with St Michael, and the Purification of the Virgin and St Martin don’t have anything to do with rents as such, they were just easy dates to remember. Henry V did not fight the battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s day because St Crispin was a saint renowned for his hatred of the French. And the same is very probably true of St Valentine’s day. However much sentimental Victorians liked to make up stories about Valentine falling in love with his jailer’s daughter, that the annual commemoration of romantic love falls on his feast day is probably just a coincidence.
There’s something in one of the Parker Library’s manuscripts which corroborates this point of view, and is much earlier than any surviving Valentine’s Day messages. The Red Book of Darley is a mid-eleventh-century manuscript, and despite its name it was written in Dorset rather than in the Peak District. There is an English note in the calendar against the 11th February.
It reads “Her onginneth fugelas to singenne”. “Her” means here, that is today; “onginneth” means beginneth, begins; “fugelas” means birds — the g was pronounced like a y, and it’s essentially the word fowls, but back in Anglo-Saxon times this word just meant birds in general rather than specifically edible farmyard birds; “to singenne” means to sing. “Here the birds start to sing.” It’s the begining of spring, when the birds choose their mates, and things start growing again. Definitely cause for celebration! So happy bird singing day, everyone, and I hope the birds are singing where you are.