Reading the confusing history of St Valentine’s Day must make people wonder how this could ever have become such an enduring tradition around the world.

It is also one of the few saints’ feast days which secularists commemorate.

Which St Valentine?

First, there has been no consensus since Roman times as to who exactly St Valentine was. There were several saints named Valentine who could have fit the bill. In 1969, the Catholic Church withdrew February 14 as a feast day for this very reason. That said, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church have retained it in their respective calendars.

The earliest Sts Valentine were all martyrs from the Roman Empire. Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni (originally Interamna) are both commemorated on February 14. Valentine of Rome, a priest, was martyred in 496 AD. Valentine of Terni was a bishop martyred during the rule of the Emperor Aurelian in 197 AD.

Geoffrey Chaucer added another St Valentine to the mix (see below), Valentine of Genoa, also a bishop. He is thought to have died in 307 AD.

Valentine of Rome

Valentine of Rome appears to be the principal saint of the legend behind February 14. The legends about his life began shortly after his death during the rule of Emperor Claudius II and include the following:

– He came to the attention of Claudius II when he was arrested for being a Christian; the emperor interrogated him personally and was impressed by Valentine’s answers.

– Valentine is said to have converted his jailer Asterius and his whole household — 44 people in all — to Christianity. This occurred after Valentine restored Asterius’s daughter Julia’s eyesight.

– Centuries later, another anecdote was added to this story: the night before Valentine’s execution, he sent a message to Julia and signed it ‘From your Valentine’.

– Another legend purports that Valentine performed clandestine marriages for Claudius II’s soldiers. The emperor supposedly forbade his men from marrying, as this would weaken them in battle. However, it seems as if this is untrue; after the Roman victory over the Goths, Claudius II encouraged the soldiers to take ‘two or three women’ apiece. Perhaps the emperor just changed his mind.

– Valentine was supposed to have given parchment hearts to the Roman soldiers whom he had married. He also gave these to other persecuted Christians, it is said, ‘to remind them of their vows and of God’s love’.

– When Claudius II realised he could not convert Valentine to paganism, he had him executed.

– After Valentine’s burial, Julia supposedly planted an almond tree on his grave. Since then, the almond tree has symbolised enduring love and friendship.

Valentine of Terni

It seems that this Valentine — the bishop — wore an amethyst ring appropriate to his office. Allegedly, it had an image of Cupid engraved on it. It seems unlikely that a Christian bishop would have a pagan deity’s image on his ring. Hmm.

His story and that of the priest Valentine seem to converge on marrying Roman soldiers. According to legend, when interested soldiers saw Valentine of Terni’s ring, they asked if he would marry them and their sweethearts.

Amethyst, therefore, became the birthstone for the month of February as the gem is associated with love.

Lupercalia

More confusion reigns over the association of Valentine’s Day with the Roman pagan feast Lupercalia, which took place between February 13 and 15. However, it would seem that what we recognise as Valentine’s Day began centuries later in the Middle Ages. There are various conflicting stories about the specific origin even at that point in history.

English writers and kings

In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem celebrating the first anniversary of the engagement of England’s Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, which included these lines:

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

As February is generally too early for birds to mate, it is thought that Chaucer could have been referring to St Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day is May 3.

Across the Channel in France, Charles VI is said to have instituted February 14 as a celebration of love, decreed in 1400 and part of the Charter of the Court of Love. However, historical documentation is non-existent and this alleged feast might not have even taken place.

Not long afterward, following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, another Charles — the Duke of Orleans — was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Evidence exists supporting the note to his wife in France as being the first ever Valentine. It included these words:

My very sweet [gentle] Valentine.

In 1477, an Englishwoman Margery Brewes compiled a collection of letters to her husband, John Paston. One entry in the Paston Letters has this line:

my right well-beloved Valentine.[50]

Moving on to the next two centuries, Shakespeare wrote the following in Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5, in 1601:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

John Donne wrote this about the marriage of Elizabeth, James I’s daughter, to Frederick V, Elector Palatine:

Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is

All the Ayre is thy Diocese
And all the chirping Queristers
And other birds ar thy parishioners
Thou marryest every yeare …

Roses are red

The famous Valentine words ‘roses are red’ began with Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene from 1590:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.[51]

By 1784, this had evolved into a more familiar verse which comes from the book of English nursery rhymes, Gammer Gurton’s Garland:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it shou’d be you.[52][53]

Next year’s entry will look at how Valentine’s Day has grown in popularity since the 19th century.

For now, my best wishes for a happy Valentine’s Day!

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