Fraser Forum

Early Valentine’s Day poem includes the economic principles of exit and voice

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On Feb. 14, 1662, Samuel Pepys’ wife spent the day with her hands shielding her eyes so that she wouldn’t see the painters who were at work in the dining room of her house. Pepys avoided visiting a particular friend because he didn’t want to see his friend’s daughter.

The most common Valentine’s Day tradition at the time seems to have been that the first person you saw on Valentine’s Day morning became your Valentine. From small hints dropped elsewhere in Pepys’ famous diary, that probably meant you were supposed to give them a gift and a kiss. So getting stuck with one of your house painters or with a friend’s unappealing daughter might really wreck your day!

On the other hand, lucking into a glimpse of the handsome guy next door first thing in the morning could be the start of something wonderful.

But Valentine’s Day traditions weren’t always about luck and fate. In Chaucer’s 14th century poem The Parliament of Fowls we are introduced to the fable that Valentine’s Day is when birds choose their mates. (We suspect Chaucer just invented this fable for the purposes of the poem, but it may have been a folk-tradition.)

In the poem a lovely little formel eagle is the object of affection of three males. They each profess their passion and detail their loyalty in front of a Parliament presided over by Nature and attended by all the other birds. But who will win the much desired formel? And how will the Parliament decide?

Some birds suggest a trial by battle to determine the best mate. Others suggest that two of the male birds just find someone else to love. Still others suggest that the male birds should serve her chastely until their deaths.

But Nature reminds all of the birds that since the very beginning of the poem she has insisted that love is not a matter of chance, but of choice—and that this choice is made by the female. And the formel eagle declines all three of her suitors.

I’m not sure how radical this insistence that love is choice and not chance seems now. And I’m quite certain that the idea that women have power in relationships is no longer shocking and new. But for Chaucer’s time, when women of high status were routinely used as bargaining chips in political and economic alliances, the idea that it would be “natural” for a woman’s desires to be consulted in the matter of choosing a spouse was still fairly new and romantic.

Economists like to talk about the importance of exit and voice as a way of allowing consumers to express their satisfaction with an institution, political system, or good. Voice allows consumers to express dissatisfaction. Exit allows them to simply depart from the system entirely.

For Pepys and his wife, Valentine’s Day didn’t provide them with opportunities for exit or voice. Whomever they saw first WOULD be their Valentine, like it or not. For Chaucer’s birds, however—particularly for his female birds—both voice and exit are in play. The formel eagle is able to say that she chooses not to serve Venus and Cupid this year. And she is able to walk right out of the Parliament.

And so when the formel eagle flies away—free as a bird—at the end of Chaucer’s poem, her chosen freedom may have more romance in it than the most adorable chance meeting, or the prettiest lace covered valentine.


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