Unfortunately the story of Saint Valentine is yet another victim of the passage of time and lack of extant documentary evidence from antiquity. However some information remains from which glorious legends and lore were birthed and nurtured. Furthermore the ideas and aspirations of St. Valentine’s Day are arguably more vital and important to the human race than historical accuracy.
There are at least two ‘Valentine’s’ associated with the festival of February 14th according to Roman Catholic deification. It was a popular name and was shared by a two Christian martyrs. Firstly Valentine of Rome, a priest who died for his faith circa 269AD and was buried on the Via Flaminia, his remains interned at the Church of Saint Praxed in Rome and Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin. Secondly, Valentine of Terni, a bishop of Interamna who was slaughtered under the edict of Emperor Aurelius c. 197AD also buried under the Via Flaminia and the Basilica of St. Valentine in Terni.
With so little knowledge of these men, Pope Paul VI removed Valentine’s Day from the Calendar of the Saints in 1969 but by that point it was firmly established in popular culture.
Now the more colourful version of how Saint Valentine’s Day came to be; for this we will start at the end in order to understand the beginning!
In the days of the great and powerful Roman Empire, paganism or the ancient Roman religion of gods and immortals was predominant in society. Religion was a useful device to rule nations through fear of judgement or righteous anger of the gods who were ever present and influential in every act of nature and fate of men.
When the rulers of these kingdoms converted to Christianity after its discreet and secretative roots in society, stemming from the time of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the easiest way to spread its popularity was not to remove the few pleasures that the devout citizens had but enhance and mould them. Many of our modern day Christian festivals occur on or around the date of a previous pagan festival as one religious celebration was replaced by another. For example, New Year’s was the time of the Saturnalia when Janus, the god of doorways, with two faces, one glancing over the past and the other gazing into the future, was worshipped.
In the lifetime of the aforementioned Valentines, February 14th was a festival honouring the high goddess Juno (or Minerva in the Greek). She was the wife of Jupiter (or Zeus), the king of the gods and thus was associated with the gift of power and also of marriage. Juno Februa was seen as an observance to purity and maidenhead but this day was also the eve of the start of the Feast of Lupercalia, a festival of a few days that exulted fertility. During this time the names of prospective young suitors were placed in a hat and drawn at random by unattached and nubile women. The pair were then bound together for the duration of the feasting and these first stirrings of romance often bloomed into marriages.
As the story goes Valentine (of Rome as the other is forgotten or melds into one being) was a priest during the time of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius was ruthless and bloody, a determined conqueror who would vanquish his enemies and enhance the hand of Rome. However it seemed that many young men were not keen to join him on these tirades and the sagely ruler blamed matrimony and familial attachment for their reticence, thus banning the rituals and traditions of the Lupercalia and in fact all potential engagements and weddings.
It is said that Valentine was sympathetic to young love’s plight and wedded couples in secret until his treason was discovered and he was sentenced to be clubbed to death and beheaded. Such a gruesome end seems almost inevitable for a would be Saint.
The legend declares further that this cruel justice was delivered on February 14th and that Valentine himself was the first to pen a mournful, love letter to the jailor’s daughter (whom, some versions of the tale declare that he had previously healed of blindness). The sentimental and tragic fable reveals that he signed this love note, “from your Valentine”.
There is no factual basis for these claims and in fact the day of Saint Valentine, observed by Holy orders, was not affiliated with romantic love at all until the medieval ages of Chaucer, who wrote:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
[“For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]
Saint Valentine’s Day was officially established by Pope Gelasius in 500AD and today we send affectionate favours and affirmations of devotion along with Hallmark, greetings cards and accustomed symbols of love and courtship, such as flowers, chocolates and heart hugging, lovable, fluffy critters.
It is a day to honour the most sacred and miraculous of human emotions that separate us from lesser species and perhaps reveal a spark of something divine. This day undoubtedly means something very different to modern patrons than it did millennia ago but the admiration and adulation of love and goodness surely pardons any imaginative critique on the history books.