A Medieval Story for Valentines Day, Bonne & Charles

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The general word on the Internet is the first Valentine card was sent in 1415. It's not accurate and it's not true. The particular Valentine was written in mid-February of 1416; it was on vellum, not card stock; it's not the first Valentine card; and no one knows if it was sent.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was in London, England, wrote the Valentine that all of the Internet declares, and that fact is true. He had a wife, Bonne, who was in Paris, France or somewhere in France. If it was sent to her, it traveled a far distance on foot and on horseback and on ship. Pagan Valentine's Day had been celebrated in Western Europe for centuries, and romantic, oftimes coded erotic, messages, had been exchanged for about 100 years by then between educated men and women who ran in the same crowd and lived in close proximity. So much for general information on the Internet...More specific information was found on special websites dealing with Medieval times.

Here's what I found:

It is possible that Charles was lonesome for Bonne, while he was in London. He had just been captured (on October 25, 1415 specifically) by the English on French soil and was being held prisoner in London or in the London countryside. Charles was one of the lucky ones. Just about every other French aristocrat was killed in the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 Year War between the English and the French for land in France dowered to Eleanor of Aquitaine (former Queen of France) when she married Henry II, the English King. Charles and Bonne hadn't been married long, about 5 years by 1415. He had been soldiering a lot during those five years, so they didn't see much of each other. A 100 Year War preoccupies a lot of generations of men folk.

There are three curious things, though, about these two you should know: (1) It was an arranged marriage whose purpose was to avoid further bloodshed between their families; (2) Bonne was 11 when she was engaged to Charles, who was 16; and (3) his father-in-law, Bonne's father, had assassinated Charles' father, Louis.

Maybe they loved each other; maybe not. I don't even know if they ever lived together as man and wife, for she was only 11 when they married, 16 at the time he wrote the verse. In any event, Charles penned a poem on Valentine's Day in 1416 and it has been retained for almost 600 years. You may not know that a Duke is a Prince, and noble, highborn prisoners were prized when captured in battle. They were 'cash cows,' held for ransom by the opposition, until their families could raise and pay the money for their release. At that time, although most men folk fought for the French King, France wasn't exactly a country, then, and the King didn't assume any responsibility for ransoming his patriotic nobles or aristocrats. (No one cared much for non-nobles or non-aristocrats, except their families. But, they were never captured and held for ransom. More often than not, they were killed. They're the enormous body counts in battles of old, the serfs and servants.) This ransom was up to the noble or aristocratic prisoner's family, if they wanted their relative back home. (And they did want their men folk back.) His ransom in today's money could be as much as $500,000 ($US). The actual amount in Medieval English crowns was 150,000 crowns. This sounds like an enormous sum. What with the French losing the war, their King's reoccurring madness, Joan of Arc's triumph, then ignominy, a subsequent economic depression, the Black Plague, and Charles' family having to pay his upkeep all those years, (plus lots of other things) it took his family 25 years to get the money and treaty agreement together to turn him over.

Bonne died while Charles was held prisoner in England, and they had no children. (She falls from the written record because she did not produce progeny, and no one knows exactly when she died or where she was when she died. Actually, no one is exactly sure where she was living and with whom while she was married to her incarcerated husband, Charles. It's probable she was transferred to Charles' family estate at the time of the betrothal and raised by Charles' family until the wedding, remaining there until she died. There's one more tidbit about poor Bonne, and that is this: Bonne may not have been her name. It's really an adjective in Old French, and merely means "good girl.")

A manuscript of the poem is in the British Library. I don't know if it's the original. It's named by the scribe, Harley, in the archive, and scribes' copies were often rewritten and rewritten and passed around for years and years amongst wealthy families. If it is the original, it was not unusual for scribes to assist in Valentines, for they made a living writing fancy script and making pretty pictures. (Apparently, Charles' family sent him enough money to pay the scribe, so he didn't live too badly while he was held prisoner.) How the manuscript got to the British Library after 600 years was by bequest, but I was unable to check out the provenance. The BL was willing to describe the manuscript: There's a Cupid image and a 3-part verse. The verse is in Old French, not English. There is no version of the poem on the Internet.

I was able to find a description by A.E.B. Coldiron, who says it's an appeal to Cupid with Charles as a servant of Cupid (Lust imagery, I think.) but no one is named and there is no heading. Charles says he admires this person (Bonne?) and despairs of seeing her again. He is frustrated (which is what all noble men were required to express in Chivalric code), but Coldiron doesn't say what he's frustrated about. He promises to be faithful and praises her beauty, virtue, and honor. He may describe intimate moments they've shared, a custom in Valentines, but I suspect not. She was simply too young to have been expected to cohabit with her groom and when she was old enough to cohabit, he was away fighting battles, then captured.

A non-academic source has published the following verse on a website, and has attributed this verse to Charles in a collection called "Romantic Valentines." It doesn't read anything like Coldiron's description, so I doubt if it's the one he wrote to Bonne. I offer it to you, so you know what a translated from Medieval French into modern English 15th century Valentine would read like.

"Wilt thou be mine? dear Love, reply

-- Sweetly consent or else deny. Whisper softly, none shall know, Wilt thou be mine, Love?

-- aye or no? Spite of Fortune, we may be Happy by one word from thee. Life flies swiftly -- ere it go Wilt thou be mine, Love?

-- aye or no?"

Frankly, the above verse is not that terrific, is it? I would call it doggerel. Maybe something is lost in the translation. If not, I think he could have done better. He had a lot of time on his hands.

I'd like to believe that Charles and Bonne did love each other, but don't know for certain. (The glimmer of hope I entertain that Charles loved Bonne is an anecdote about him reading a love poem he composed to her at their wedding ceremony. Some scholars believe he was showing off his poem prowess, but some scholars are without a scrap of romance in their souls.) Things were different six hundred years ago: love and marriage didn't intersect amongst nobility and aristocrats. Children were pawns and shuffled around to do smart things for their families. Duty to family superceded love and children dutifully married other children. Romance was in the chivalrous code, hence, unrequited. Sexual congress was for procreation, a duty, and family lineage promulgation was its purpose. Lust was with wrenches, when they could be found. If Bonne and Charles loved each other, it's a sad story of 2 children from good families. If they didn't love each other, it's a jailhouse reverie of a young man who burns. I don't want to leave you on either note. So, I'll go for this: go get some vellum (stretched goat skin), pen a personal message of your feelings to your love, make it pretty and fancy all over, and hand it to your love. Maybe your message will be memorialized until 2605, when someone like me comes around to figure what happened then.

Barbara Nell, publisher of "The Perspicacious Woman OnLine," a bi-monthly fashion e-zine in its 10th year of publication, has been a closet bug on history all her life.

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