Parlement of Foules

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Not to be confused with the 12th-century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds.

The "Parlement of Foules" (also known as the "Parliament of Foules", "Parlement of Birddes", "Assembly of Fowls", "Assemble of Foules", or "The Parliament of Birds") is a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?–1400) made up of approximately 700 lines. The poem is in the form of a dream vision in rhyme royal stanza and is interesting in that it is the first reference to the idea that St. Valentine's Day was a special day for lovers.[1]


The poem begins with the narrator reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis in the hope of learning some "certeyn thing". When he falls asleep Scipio Africanus[clarification needed] appears and guides him up through the celestial spheres to Venus’s temple, after some deliberation at the gate both promising a "welle of grace" and a stream that "ledeth to the sorweful were/ Ther as a fissh in prison is al drye" (Reminiscent of Dante's "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"). The narrator then passes through Venus's dark temple with its friezes of doomed lovers and out into the bright sunlight where Nature is convening a parliament at which the birds all choose their mates. The three tercel eagles make their case for the hand of a formel eagle until the birds of the lower estates begin to protest and launch into a comic parliamentary debate, which Nature herself finally ends. None of the tercels wins the formel, for at her request Nature allows her to put off her decision for another year (indeed, female birds of prey often become sexually mature at one year of age, males only at two years). Nature, as the ruling figure, in allowing the formel the right to choose not to choose is acknowledging the importance of free will, which is ultimately the foundation of a key theme in the poem, that of common profit. Nature allows the other birds, however, to pair off. The dream ends with a song welcoming the new summer. The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks.


Chaucer first discusses Cicero's "Scipio's Dream". Scipio travels to Africa where he meets his grandfather, Scipio Africanus and shows him Carthage. He goes on to show him the earth in comparison to the rest of the heavens. Scipio has questions for his grandfather about the heavens.

Thanne axede he if folk that had here been dede Han lyf and dwellynge in another place. And Affrican seyde, "Ye, withouten drede," And that oure present worldes lyves space Nis but a maner deth, what wey we trace; And rightful folk shul gon, after they dye, To hevene; and shewede hym the Galaxye. (lines 50-56)

This is an important lesson, because Africanus tells Scipio that if you live a good life, you will go to heaven when you die. Heaven is a place of paradise, not on earth obviously, because once a person dies, he or she is no longer on earth. There are two places one can go once he or she dies, according to Christian theology, heaven or hell. Heaven is paradise, whereas Hell is the opposite. Hell is where people are tortured and beaten senselessly for the rest of eternity. This is because they were bad people, sinners, in their lives on earth. People can learn from this to be good in life while on earth. There is not much detail about heaven or hell in this poem. At the time Chaucer wrote this poem, Christianity was the dominant faith in Europe, and perhaps one of the few faiths in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Thanne preyede hym Scipion to telle hym al The wey to come into that hevene blisse. And he seyde, "Know thyself first immortal, And loke ay besyly thow werche and wysse To commune profit, and thow shalt not mysse To comen swiftly to that place deere That ful of blysse is and of soules cleere.

But brekers of the lawe, soth to seyne, And likerous folk, after that they ben dede, Shul whirle aboute th'erthe alwey in peyne, Tyl many a world be passed, out of drede, And than, foryeven al hir wikked dede, Than shul they come into that blysful place, To which comen God the sende his grace. (lines 71-84)

There are not many references to Valentine's Day before Chaucer wrote 'The Parliament of Fowls. He describes a beautiful scene in which there are trees, lakes, streams, and more creating a very beautiful place. Many things and people are in this "Parliament of Fowls". At one point, he sees Cupid sharpening his arrows before he goes to pierce the hearts of lovers. Chaucer refers to everything within this place as a "fowl", yet not everything seems to be a foul thing. We often think of the word foul as having to do with something bad, but he describes everything in such a wonderful and positive fashion. It is unclear here what Chaucer means by the word "foul", but it is used in the form of a noun rather than the adjective we often think of today.

That is to seyn, the foules of ravyne Weere hyest set, and thanne the foules smale That eten, as hem Nature wolde enclyne, As worm or thyng of which I telle no tale; And water-foul sat lowest in the dale; But foul that lyveth by sed sat on the grene, And that so fele that wonder was to sene. (lines 323-329)

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make, Of every kynde that men thynke may, And that so huge a noyse gan they make That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake So ful was that unethe was there space For me to stonde, so ful was al the place. (lines 308-315)

It is also not clear why it is called a parliament. Parliament in this day and age usually refers to a system of government, a democratic government more specifically. It is a legislative body that meets in the particular nation's capital city to discuss how the country should be run. The parliament building is the location in which the legislative body meets, making it an important gathering place. Perhaps this is what parliament means in Chaucer's poem. The "Parliament of Fowls" is the gathering place of all that is in nature, and everything is gathered on Seint Valentine's day. It is the day when lovers are supposed to meet each other, perhaps for the first time. Today, Valentine's day has become much more commercialized, especially in the United States. Also, today, it falls on the 14th of February each year. The particular date of Valentine's day is not mentioned in "The Parliament of Fowls", so it is likely that the current date for Valentine's day did not originate in this poem. Chaucer describes the lovers in this scene as the birds and their devotion to mother nature. The birds represent males and nature representing females. The birds are married to the nature, and are good to it, the way lovers should be good to each other.


Parliament of Fowls Manuscripts.svg

There are fifteen manuscript sources for the poem:

  • British Library, Harley 7333
  • Cambridge University Library Gg. IV.27
  • Cambridge University Library Ff. I.6 (Findern)
  • Cambridge University Library Hh.IV.12 (incomplete)
  • Pepys 2006, Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • Trinity College, Cambridge R.3.19
  • Bodleian Library, Arch. Selden B.24
  • Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 416
  • Bodleian Library, Fairfax 16
  • Bodleian Library, Bodley 638
  • Bodleian Library, Tanner 346
  • Bodleian Library, Digby 181
  • St. John's College, Oxford, J LVII
  • Longleat 258, Longleat House, Warminster, Wilts

William Caxton's early print of 1478 is also considered authoritative, for it reproduces the text of a manuscript now considered lost. The stemma and genealogy of these authorities was studied by John Koch in 1881, and later established by Eleanor Prescott Hammond in 1902, dividing them into two main groups, A and B (last five MSS), although the stemma is by no means definitive.

Concerning the author of the poem, there is no doubt that it was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, for so he tells us twice in his works.

  • The first time is in the Introduction (Prologue) to The Legend of Good Women: "He made the book that hight the Hous of Fame, / And eke the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse, / And the Parlement of Foules, as I gesse".[2]
  • The second allusion is found in the Retraction to The Canterbury Tales: "the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes".[2]

A more difficult question is that of date. Early criticism of the poem, as far as the first decades of the 20th century, relied mainly on the different interpretations of the text—comparing the fight for the female eagle with royal betrothals of the age—to produce a date of composition for the poem. Fred N. Robinson (Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1957: 791) mentioned that "if the theories of allegory in the Parliament are rejected, the principal evidence usually relied on for dating the poem about 1381-2 disappears". Later criticism, however, is much more objective on the reasons why the poem has been dated in 1382, the main reason given in lines 117–118 of the poem itself: "As wisly as I sawe the [Venus], northe northe west / When I begane my sweuene for to write" for according to John M. Manly (1913: 279–90) Venus is never strictly in the position "north-north-west...but it can be easily thought to be so when it reaches its extreme northern point". Manly adds that this condition was met in May 1374, 1382, and 1390.

The third date is easily discarded since we know that the poem is already mentioned as composed in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women. Derek Brewer (1960: 104) then argues that the date of 1382, as opposed to that of 1374, is much more likely for the composition of the poem since, during the same period (1373–85), Chaucer wrote many other works including The House of Fame which, in all respects, seems to have been composed earlier than "The Parliament of Fowls", thus: "a very reasonable, if not certain, date for the Parlement is that it was begun in May 1382, and was ready for St. Valentine's Day, 14th February 1383" (Brewer, 1960: 104). Although much of the criticism on the interpretation of "The Parliament of Fowls"—which would render clues for its date of composition—is contradictory, and criticism about the importance of line 117 does not agree on whether it can be taken as serious evidence for the dating of the poem, there is nowadays a general agreement among scholars as to 1381–1382 being the date of composition for "The Parliament of Fowls".


  1. ^ Oruch, Jack B., "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February," Speculum, 56 (1981): 534–65. Oruch's survey of the literature finds no association between Valentine and romance prior to Chaucer. He concludes that Chaucer is likely to be "the original mythmaker in this instance."
  2. ^ a b Benson, Larry D., ed. (2008). The Riverside Chaucer (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 328, 600. ISBN 978-0-19-955209-2. 

Artistic representations[edit]

  • The Parliament of Fowls (2008) is a one-act comic opera by American composer John Craton

External links[edit]