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The Origins of Saint Valentine's Day

Updated on February 11, 2018
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I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

February 14: A day of candied hearts, Cupid's arrows, and bouquets of flowers all in the name of Saint Valentine.

But who was Saint Valentine?

History has revealed that there are possibly three priests by the name of Valentine, and further detail on any of them is sketchy at best. However, we do know that Saint Valentine was probably a real person.

The first known representation of St. Valentine appeared in The Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated book published in 1493. This book stated that St. Valentine was apprehended for marrying Christian couples and aiding Christians who were being persecuted under the Roman Emperor Claudius II (when helping Christians was considered a crime). He was arrested, imprisoned, and executed on February 14, about the year 270 C.E.

According to Christianity (specifically, Catholicism), saints do not simply rest in Heaven. Saints are active in the world, performing miracles and interceding in human lives (sort of like the Ancient Greek and Roman gods...). For his aid to Christian couples, St. Valentine is considered the patron saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, and love. He is represented in pictures with birds and roses and is believed to be able to intercede in affairs of the heart.

Yet Valentine's Day is deeper than one man. In fact, it may be derived not only from three Christian martyrs but, like many modern holidays, from ancient practices long forgotten and glossed over by modern marketing.

Statue depicting Romulus and Remus.
Statue depicting Romulus and Remus. | Source


It all starts with the pagans: those various peoples that Christians would come to associate with all things evil.

In the 18th century, Alban Butler and Francis Douce suggested that the obscurity surrounding Saint Valentine's actual identity may be a clue as to what the Catholic Church was really attempting in creating the feast day: superseding the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. The Catholic Church was known to have done this with other holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Though these holidays do celebrate key moments in Christian theology, they are also notorious cover-ups of pre-Christian beliefs and events.

Lupercalia was a festival celebrated on February 15 by the ancient Romans. The focal point of the festival was a site on Palatine Hill known as Lupercal. This site is a cave in which Romulus and Remus, the children of the god Mars, were said to have been nurtured by a wolf beside the river Tiber after they had been cast out by their wicked uncle. Romulus would become the founder of the Roman Empire.

In general, Lupercalia was a purification and fertility rite. The festival began when members of the Luperci (the Roman order of priests) gathered at the sacred cave of Lupercal. They would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. They would skin the goat, cutting the hide into strips, which were then dipped into the sacrificial blood and used to flog women and crop fields. The Romans believed that the touch of the hides would make the women and fields more fertile in the coming year. After this, the women in the city would place their names in an urn; the city's bachelors would choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen women. Legends state that many of these matches ended in marriage, though the evidence for this part of the ritual is scant.

Modern archaeology has confirmed that a cave matching the style of the Lupercal sanctuary exists near Palatine Hill. They have also found a circle of huts dating to the 8th century BCE (circa 753 BCE) on the site that was possibly the home of shepherds. Though Romulus and Remus are likely just mythical figures (or mythical interpretations of Rome's real founders), the existence of the site does provide proof that the Romans celebrated Lupercalia as a major holiday.

Lupercalia survived until the initial rise of Christianity. At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius outlawed the ritual and decreed that February 14 would be known as St. Valentine's Day in honor of the martyr. The association with fertility (and love) would not occur until much later.

St. Valentine of Terni depiction
St. Valentine of Terni depiction | Source

Saint Valentine: The Evidence

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different Saint Valentines, also called Valentinus. All were martyrs.

One of the martyrs was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. At this time, Emperor Claudius II had decided that single men made better soldiers, and thus he outlawed marriage for young men. (In hindsight, that probably wasn't the best decision for keeping the Roman Empire alive....) Valentine, realizing the absurdity of this decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When he was discovered, he was put to death.

Another legend suggests that Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. This legend suggests that when Valentine himself was imprisoned, he would send love letters to a girl he was in love with (possibly his jailor's daughter). Before his death, it is said that he signed his last letter "From your Valentine," an expression that is still in use today.

A final legend is of a priest who was martyred in Africa with a number of his companions. However, little detail remains of this legend.

Today, the Catholic Church has combined these legends. St. Valentine is listed as a priest in Rome who, along with St. Marius, helped martyrs escape persecution under Claudius II. Valentine was captured and sent to Rome; he was then beaten for refusing to renounce his faith and beheaded on February 14, about the year 269 C.E.. The Church claims that he was buried on the Flaminian Way.

Besides these legends, however, there is some evidence that St. Valentine was a real person. The first piece is that there are nearly a dozen St. Valentines, all originally known as Valentinus. The name Valentinus was a popular moniker between the second and eighth centuries, and several martyrs had this name over the years. The official Roman Catholic roster of saints includes about a dozen with a variation of the name "Valentine" or "Valentinus." The most recent is St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Dominican Spaniard who traveled to Vietnam and was beheaded in 1861. There is also a record of a Pope Valentine, who served for only 40 days around 827 C.E.

The second piece is archeology: in the early 1800s, a catacomb was excavated near Rome that yield skeletal remains and relics associated with St. Valentine. These relics were distributed around the world and are now on display in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France. You can even see St. Valentine's skull on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome!

A final piece is the church built to honor St. Valentine. It was built by Pope Julius I (337 - 352 C.E.) at Porta del Popolo in Rome and is also known as the Gate of Valentine. However, there are also several other churches that have been discovered by archaeologists, including the 10th century church Sancti Valentini de Balneo Miccine that was rededicated to the saint in 1186 by Pope Urban III and the Via Flaminia church (known as the ancient basilica S. Valentini extra Portam).

"Weddings now are all the go,  Will you marry me or no?"
"Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no?" | Source

From Saint to Candy Hearts

St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, has its origins in 14th century England. Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle were the first to associate the holiday with romantic love, mainly in Chaucer's Parliament of Foules, a poem which set the fictional context of the traditions.

This medieval period may be the source of the first legends of St. Valentine, that he sent the first "valentine" to a young girl with whom he fell in love during his imprisonment, signing it "From Your Valentine."

The oldest known valentine, however, is dated to 1415, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (Anyone else find it odd that men are only sending valentines while facing death?) This letter is part of the manuscript collection at the British Library.

The 14th century is also the high point of courtly love, a medieval European concept of chivalry and the expression of love and admiration. Courtly love began in the courts of Quitaine, Provence, Champagne, and Burgundy at the end of the eleventh century. It was shared between members of the nobility and was kept secret, thus it was generally thought that courtly love was equivalent to "forbidden love" (especially since medieval marriages rarely had anything to do with love).

Courtly love was meant to be illicit, morally elevating, passionate, humiliating, and transcendent, among other things: the perfect recipe for an affair. Courtly love adopted the language of feudalism, as men declared themselves vassals of a lady and addressed her as "midons" (meaning "my lord," thus disguising the lady's true name). It was popularized by troubadours and bards in poems and songs. However, "courtly love" was an almost purely psychological affair - rarely, if ever, did courtly love result in physical intimacy.

Shakespeare and John Donne (as well as many others) had used the language of courtly love in the 16th and 17th centuries to expand upon Valentine's Day, as seen in Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 5) and Donne's poetry. Perhaps most telling of all was a Valentine's poem, published in a book of English nursery rhymes in 1784: "The rose is red, the violet's blue..."

By the 18th century, it had become customary for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes on February 14. In the Victorian era, printed cards replaced written letters as a way to express emotions, encouraged both by improvements in printing technology and cheeper postage rates. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced valentines in America.

This practice was extended in the 20th century to all manners of gifts, especially in the United States. With the advent of consumerism in post-war America, Valentine's Day became a day of gift-giving, from roses and chocolates to diamonds, making it into the modern holiday that most of us know and love.


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    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Great explanation of Valentine's Day. Voting this Up and Interesting.


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