So, Saint Valentine’s Day is probably all in your face right now. Buy candy! Buy flowers! Singles’ Awareness Day! Hearts! Hallmark cards! Another day spent weeping in your bedroom! We all know how it goes. If you are like me, though, at some point you stopped and said, “Wait. Who is Saint Valentine?”
Oddly enough, I don’t think anyone knows.
For one thing, the name “Valentine” is as common a name as it gets in late antiquity. It’s derived from the Latin word valens, meaning “strong” or “brave” (hence the word valor), and the Romans notoriously were unoriginal when it came to nomenclature. It would be like being named Michael today; you can’t walk in a crowd without encountering a Mike. Picking one Valentine out of the many thousands of men named Valentine in the Roman Empire is like picking a specific needle out of a haystack…made out of needles. Even sainthood does little to illuminate the shadowy picture of Valentine: there are about eleven saints named Valentine in the Catholic Church, only a few of which are tied to the date of February 14. Basically, anything historical about the February 14 Saint Valentine is apocryphal. Even the Catholic Church has little to offer by way of explanation. Pope Gelasius I first commemorated a feast in St. Valentine’s honor on February 14 in the Fifth Century, saying his was one of those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” You know. He was that one guy. The one that did that thing? Yeah, that guy!
Frankly, the legendary accounts of St. Valentine are more interesting anyway. The most basic story is that Valentine was a Christian priest who secretly performed marriages and who was arrested for his faith in the then-pagan Roman Empire. Emperor Claudius Gothicus himself interrogated Valentine and apparently liked the guy…right up until Valentine said Claudius Gothicus should become a Christian. For that, the emperor ordered Valentine to be executed. Valentine didn’t go out without putting on a show; he touched the eyes of his jailer’s daughter, who was blind, and she miraculously was able to see again. He then wrote a message to her before he was sent off to be executed, signing the message, “From your Valentine.” From that, we allegedly get the phrasing, “Be my Valentine.” Valentine was reportedly beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate, one of the gates to the city of Rome and the starting point of the Via Flaminia, a long road running from Rome to Rimini on the opposite coast of Italy. This lines up with the semi-historical accounts of St. Valentine being a priest or bishop buried along the Via Flaminia, but again, this is of dubious historical accuracy.
Okay, so far, so good, but what does that have to do with love? Some guy getting his head cut off doesn’t sound very romantic (unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that seeing Fifty Shades of Grey is the ideal way to spend Valentine’s Day with the one you love). Geoffrey Chaucer, famous for writing the soporific cavalcade The Canterbury Tales, wrote a poem called “Parlement of Foules” about the mating of birds to honor the marriage of King Richard II of England to his wife in A.D. 1382. Chaucer made a reference to Valentine’s Day as being the day that birds began their mating habits. King Charles VI of France issued a charter in A.D. 1400 that decreed a festival on February 14, to be celebrated with feasting, love poems and songs, jousting, and dancing. In the same century, Duke Charles of Orleans wrote a rondeau to his wife called, “A Farewell to Love,” and opens with the lines, “I’m already sick of love, my very sweet Valentine…” By the time Shakespeare was writing in the Seventeenth Century, the tradition of Valentine’s Day being associated with love was in full force; Ophelia in Hamlet jibes thus:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, all in the morning betime, and I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, and dupp’d the chamber-door; let in the maid, that out a maid never departed more.
Okay, so Valentine’s Day was associated with “love” of a kind by Shakespeare’s Day. The “roses are red, violets are blue” verse appeared in 1590 and became popular in the 1700s. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the practice of sending valentine cards (in the tradition of Valentine’s message to his jailer’s daughter) was commonplace. With the Twentieth Century came the expansion of candy, flowers, and jewelry into the Valentine’s Day exchange, and of course since the very late Twentieth Century and especially in the Twenty-First Century, e-cards are the becoming a popular alternative to the traditional paper valentine.
Saint Valentine’s Day seems to have taken on a life of its own since medieval times, considering it is about a guy no one knows anything about whatsoever. We may never know much about Saint Valentine, but then, isn’t that fitting for the saint associated with that mysterious thing called love?