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What's with St. Valentine?

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the January 2004, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

February 14, St. Valentine’s Day, has long been a date dedicated to romantic love. But unlike that other holiday saint, St. Nicholas, there are no seasonal stories linking the saint to this yearly ritual. There is a reason for this. There is no connection. So this essay will explore how the saint day of St. Valentine became St. Valentine’s Day.

There are actually nine St. Valentines, two of which share February 14 as their saint day. One was the bishop of Terni beheaded in 270, and the other a physician who was martyred in 269, both happening in Rome. It is considered likely that they are two local stories of the same martyr. They first appear in the Martyrdom of St. Jerome which was complied around 431. Archaeological evidence indicates that their shrines existed in the middle of the fourth century. However, the earliest historical martyrologies (that is stories of the martyrs as opposed to just a list of names) date only to the eighth century. In the early versions each was accorded only one miracle; one the restoration of the sight of his jailer’s daughter, the other, the cure of a boy’s twisted body. There was no mention of marriage, love, or romance.

The most commonly cited origin started with the Roman festival of Lupercalia. The origins of this festival are lost, but is was one of many fertility rites to be found in the ancient world. It marked the beginning of spring in the Mediterranean basin. As was common in fertility rites, young men and women would get intimate with each other, but there was no organized pairing. While the festival lasted till the end of the fifth century it was but a minor holiday more scandalous for what it represented then what actually took place.

Also against this idea is that the troubadours' songs of the 11th century and the courts of love and the romances of chivalric love of the 12th century do not mention any traditions now associated with St. Valentine’s day. A popular compendium of saint’s lives “The Golden Legend” by Jacobus de Voragine from 1255 has no romantic elements in its entry on St. Valentine. Other difficulties include that the earliest mention of St. Valentine’s Day as a substitute is in Alban Butler’s “Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints” written over the period 1756 to 1759. Other details are added by Francis Dauce in 1807 in his “Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners”.

So where did the idea come from? The best candidate for the innovator is Geoffrey Chaucer. While he left no evidence the he purposely invented St. Valentine’s Day, nothing is heard of it till after his “The Parlement of Foules”, usually dated 1382, lays it all out. The poem is a discourse of love and marriage. Four times in the poem Chaucer states that St. Valentine’s Day is when birds choose their mates. In another poem “The Compleynt of Mars” he again makes the connection. His fellow poets: John Gower, Oton de Grandson, and Sir John Clauvowe also wrote poems containing this conceit around the same time. Shakespeare alludes to it in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in Act 4 scene 1 lines 139-140.

Bird mating and nesting is a conventional sign of spring. While this is unlikely to occur in mid-February in England, it must be remember that Chaucer was a poet not a natural scientist and more concerned literary conventions then actual facts. And the contrast between the actuality of cold gloomy mid-February and the warm bright setting of his parliament might have added to the appeal of using the date. So how does St. Valentine work in? There are few saints in the English liturgical calendar of mid-February, and of those saints, Valentine was the most poetic name. Thus it was his feast day that was used as the meeting day.

Whether Chaucer intended to start a new tradition or not, the conceit quickly became very popular. Christine de Pisan mentions it in her “Tale of the Rose” in 1402. Henry V is said to have hired Lydgate to compose a valentine to Catherine of Valois (there is enough uncertainty of the dating of the poem “A Valentine of Her that excelleth all” that it could have been written after Henry’s death). Duke Charles of Orleans is credited with writing the first known Valentine, a poem to his wife in 1415 while he was in the Tower of London after his capture at Agincourt (what he actually did was write his correspondence with his wife as a series of ballads in the style of courtly love). In the Paston letters for 1477, discussions for a marriage proposal are proposed for St. Valentine’s Day, and later the would be bride sends a couple of letters referring to her beloved as her Valentine.

That most emblematic item of the holiday, St. Valentine Cards, does not appear till around 1848. But exchanging notes and tokens of affection were long established by this point. And the already obscured historical St. Valentine disappeared, buried by new legends formed to explain his connection to this most un-religious activity.

 

Bibliography

Catholic University of America Press, (2002). Martyrologies (2nd ed., Vol. 9). New York: Thomson Gale. p. 232-233

Catholic University of America Press, (2002). St. Valentine (2nd ed., Vol. 14). New York: Thomson Gale. p. 371-372

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Walter W. Skeat. London: Oxford University Press, 1912.

Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Oruch, Jack B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February.." Speculum 56 (1981): 534-565.

The Pastons: A Family in the Wars of the Roses. Ed. Richard Barber. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 1981.

 

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