Who is the Valentine behind Valentine’s Day?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”. (NRSV) This “cloud” has grown in size ever since. In this monthly column, we’ll reflect on some of the people and events over the past 2,000 years that have helped build this “cloud.” The people and events that helped build the Christian church community as it exists today.

On February 14, a large number of cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts will be given to celebrate romantic love. In 2021, despite the lockdown, it was estimated that somewhere in the region of 40million UK adults (or 76%) celebrated Valentine’s Day and spent £926million (or, on average, £23 per person).

If one wants to get a better idea of ​​the impact of the day, pre-lockdown, then the statistics for 2020 are available. In the UK before the lockdown, the estimated number of people celebrating the event stood at 41.4 million and spent £1.45 billion (or £35 per person). It is estimated that around 25 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent out each year in the UK.

Clearly, Valentine’s Day is now accompanied by a massive commercial operation and a huge success. Who said romance was dead?!

However, the modern event has intriguing roots and these ultimately trace back to an early Christian and the traditions associated with him.

The real ‘Valentine’?

We don’t know exactly who he was. A late medieval tradition (which may be correct) is that he was beheaded near Rome. This, it is said, happened on the orders of “Emperor Claudius”. This is generally assumed to refer to Claudius Gothicus, also known as Claudius II (Emperor 268-270), who would place his martyrdom in the second half of the 3rd century. The medieval account (from the 15th century) identifies him as a priest who helped Christian couples to marry. A different account claims that Valentine was the bishop of Terni in central Italy, but also claims that he was martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome.

One strand of the lore explains that the Roman emperor decided to forbid marriage to young men in the military, but Valentine defied the edict and continued to perform wedding ceremonies for young lovers. Another version of the legend places Valentin in prison, where he fell in love with a young woman who visited him. Shortly before his execution, it is claimed that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”. These are clearly romantic embellishments of an earlier (and rare) tale of imprisonment and execution.

As early as 496, the church was candid about how little was known of him, naming him a martyr whose deeds were “known only to God”. In 1969, the Catholic Church recognized him by removing him from the list of liturgically venerated. However, he still remains one of those officially classified as “saints”.

Just to confuse matters, after Valentine’s Day there were about twelve other “Valentines” whose deeds were celebrated by the Catholic Church, including a pope who was in office for forty days c. 827. Three of them were also martyred for their Christian faith.

Today, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, displays a skull adorned with flowers, allegedly that of the original St. Valentine. Other relics – believed to be from his body – can be found in places as far afield as England, Scotland, Ireland, the Czech Republic and France.

What connects the original Valentine’s Day to the modern event is this help given to Christian couples and their weddings. This made him the patron saint of lovers, fiancés and marriages. Incidentally, he is also the patron saint of beekeeping and epilepsy, as well as plague, fainting and travel.

The association with love and romance can be attested in England as early as the 14th century.

The Making of a Romance Saint

The earliest trace of the romantic tradition in England probably dates from the 1380s, when the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’) included two lines in his poem, ‘Parliament of Crowds’, which read: ‘For that has was sent on the day of Seynt Valentyne/When every fault comes to choose its mate.”

Although he does not unpack the tradition, it seems that by the end of the 14th century, the day commemorating Saint Valentine’s Day became associated with spring and birds finding mates.

However, to confuse matters, Chaucer also mentioned Valentine in another poem which reads:

“Valentine’s Day, this art at the top,

So singen smalle fowls because of you:

Now welcome summer with tye sunne soft,

It has turned the weather upside down this winter.”

It doesn’t sound much like February 14 (“Welcome Summer”!) and some experts believe Chaucer had another Valentine in mind: Valentine of Genoa, who died around 307 and was commemorated on May 3.

On the other hand, it is possible that Chaucer wrote as he did because there was a pre-existing connection in folklore between the supposed date of Valentine’s martyrdom and memories of the Roman festival of Lupercalia (15 February), which was associated with fertility. Or maybe Chaucer – a well-read poet – invented the link because he knew the Lupercalia from his classical knowledge and linked it to Valentine’s Day and a season when medieval observers noticed that the birds began their courtship. It is difficult to decide.

Despite the apparent confusion, Chaucer wasn’t the only one to connect Valentine with finding mates. This idea developed further, as the connection with romantic human love was made by several writers at the time, both on the Continent and in England: Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate. Lydgate, around 1440, was the first in England to record a tradition that the date was marked by expressions of romantic love as people “choose their choice, out of great affection”.

It is difficult to say whether Lydgate was referring to widespread activity or activity confined to the royal court. The earliest surviving Valentine’s poem was written by French aristocrat Charles d’Orléans, a prisoner in the Tower of London since the Battle of Agincourt (1415). He wrote it to “Ma tres doulce Valentinée” (My Very Sweet Valentine), the verse of which appears three times in the poem.

And the rest is history…

From then on, the giving of romantic displays of affection by both genders became associated with the day. In some 15th-century traditions, whoever received the token was drawn by lot. It is impossible to say how far these activities went up the social scale.

By the 17th century the celebration was widespread and Samuel Pepys mentions traditions associated with it in the 1660s. Records from the 18th century show mixed traditions of tokens being given to lovers but also, in some areas, to someone chosen by draw.

At the same time, the practice of anonymously sending Valentine’s Day tokens increased and remains a feature of tradition for many today. By the 1840s, these took the form of commercially produced “Valentine’s Day cards”. Early ones were decorated with lace or satin, but by the 1870s inexpensive printed cards were available. In 1880, 1.5 million Valentine’s Day cards were delivered by the Post Office.

In the early 20th century the practice declined, and by 1914 few such cards were being sent. However, there was something of a revival in the 1920s and 1930s, which grew massively in the 1950s. This was aided by a new consumerism and encouraged by trends in the United States. And it went from there.

What is extraordinary is that the modern (highly commercialized) event has its roots in a person who – if tradition is correct – was executed for supporting young engaged couples whose love drove them to challenge the power of a ruthless state. It also promotes romantic love and mutual affirmation, which (if we combine it with commitment, care, and loyalty) is worth celebrating. Or maybe I’m just an old romantic!

Martyn Whittock is an Evangelical and a licensed lay minister in the Church of England. As a historian and author or co-author of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. Additionally, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interplay of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News to discuss political events in the United States. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia’s Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021).


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