The real history of Valentine?s Day Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 25 January 2012 07:47
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Red roses, pink champagne, love letters . . . of course we all know what Valentine’s Day is about. Or do we?

The word ‘Valentine’ has become synonymous with romantic love, but that’s apparently not the way it started out. The first time Saint Valentine’s Day appeared in history was in 496 AD when Pope Gelasius I established a day named after several Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine.

It was only in the 14th century that the day became associated with love. In 1382 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote ‘Parlement of Foules’, a poem written to celebrate the first anniversary of two 15-year-olds’ engagement. They were King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.

A line out of this poem reads: “For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

Mid-February, however, is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England. The month of May is a much more likely time and it is said that Chaucer’s poem refers to 2 May, the saint’s day for the bishop of Genoa, named Valentine of Genoa, who died around AD 307.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who first associated Valentine’s Day with romantic love, by Thomas Occleve in 1412

It is said that about 14 martyred saints of ancient Rome were named Valentine. The Valentines honoured on 14 February are Valentine of Terni, bishop of Terni in about AD 197 who was martyred during the persecution under Emperor Aurelian, and Valentine of Rome, a priest in Rome who was martyred about AD 269. Both were buried on the Via Flaminia, an ancient high road from Rome to Ariminum.

The ‘Catholic Encyclopaedia’ associates a third saint Valentine with 14 February. The only thing known about him is that he was martyred in Africa.

An 1883 advertisement for Prang's Valentine’s cards

Contrary to modern legends, no romantic elements were present in these martyrs’s lives – only an element of sacrifice. For example, greeting card companies nowadays tell the story that St Valentine was a priest who refused to obey Roman Emperor Claudius II’s edict that all young men should remain single.

Apparently he wanted to grow his army and was convinced that married men would not make good soldiers. According to the legend the priest Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies; he was arrested for this and thrown in jail.

What really happened, according to Catholic lore, was that St Valentine was persecuted as a Christian. He was interrogated by Roman Emperor Claudius II, who tried to convert Valentine to Roman paganism to save his life. Valentine refused. He tried to convert the emperor to Christianity instead. Just before his execution, he performed a miracle by healing his jailer’s blind daughter.

Saint Valentine of Terni with his disciples, from a 14th century French manuscript
Photos: Wikipedia

Scholars have taken Chaucer’s 1382 poem to mean that Valentine’s Day was already an old tradition in the 14th century. Apparently this is not true and there is no link between Valentine’s Day and ancient Greek and Roman traditions.

In the ancient Athenian calendar, the month of Gamelion – between mid-January and mid-February – was dedicated to Zeus and Hera’s sacred marriage.

In pagan Rome, Lupercalia was the name of an archaic fertility rite performed from 13 to 15 February. It was abolished by Pope Gelasius I somewhere around 492 AD. A later festival, called ‘Juno Februa’, or the chaste Juno, was celebrated on 13 and 14 February.

A handwritten poem, "To Susanna" dated Valentine's Day, 1850 and mailed in Cork, Ireland

Eighteen years after Chaucer published his poem, Valentine’s Day was honoured in a highly unusual way in France. On Valentine’s Day 1400, a High Court of Love was established in Paris. Judges in this court were chosen by women on the basis of a poetry reading and the court dealt with love contracts, violence against women and betrayals.

References to Valentine’s Day in literature became more frequent and in 1600 Ophelia mentions Valentine’s Day in Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed Saint Valentine’s Day from the General Roman Calendar of saints because “apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14”.

Most distinctions between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, both buried there, were lost. So has the association between martyrdom and 14 February. Although, many of those bearing thorny bunches of red roses this Valentine’s Day would be eager to debate the point.

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