In history there were multiple St. Valentines (including decapitated ones) but, apparently, was a medieval poet who first established the holiday’s romantic tradition.
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On February 14, when we share chocolates, special dinners, or gift with our loved ones, we do it in the name of Saint Valentine.
But who was actually this character?
Search the web, and you can find plenty of stories about him (or them). For istance, one Saint Valentine was supposedly a Roman priest who performed secret weddings against the wishes of the authorities in the third century.
On February 14, around the year 270 A.D., he was executed in the days of Emperor Claudius II. Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues, as he believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. Thus, to get rid of the problem, he banned all marriages and engagements in Rome.
Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.
When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270.
According to the legend, while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had healed from blindness, causing the whole household to convert to Christianity, and signed it “From Your Valentine.” For his great service, Valentine was named a saint after his death.
In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was the above mentioned priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) during the same period also credited with secret weddings and martyrdom via beheading on this day, and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.
Unfortunately for anyone hoping for a romantic backstory to the holiday, scholars who have studied its origins say there’s very little basis for these accounts. In fact, Valentine’s Day only became associated with love in the late Middle Ages, thanks to the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
Moreover, Valentine was a very popular name in ancient Rome, and there are at least 50 stories of different saints by that name.
Perhaps more disappointing for the romantics among us, the early accounts of the two Valentines are typical martyrdom stories, stressing the saints’ miracles and gruesome deaths but containing not a word about romance.
Legends also abound on how the martyr’s (or martyrs) name became connected with love and today’s holiday.
Saint Valentine’s Day has also been associated with a Christian effort to replace the older holiday of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love, which Romans celebrated on February 15.
Some accounts paint Lupercalia as a particularly sexy holiday, when women wrote their names on clay tablets which men then drew from a jar, pairing up random couples (but this is another story).
Apparently, the Roman festival involved two nearly naked young men slapping everyone around them with pieces of goat skin, as some young married women believed that being hit with the skins promoted conception and easy childbirth.
In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia, and he declared that February 14 be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day.
So how did Geoffrey Chaucer create the Valentine’s Day we know today?
In the 1370s or 1380s, he wrote a poem called “Parliament of Fowls” that contains this line: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.”
This was a moment in Europe when a particular set of romantic ideas took shape, as Chaucer and other writers of his time celebrated romance between knights and noble ladies who could never marry, often because she was married already, creating a variety of stories that still are roots our romantic comedies today.
As a result, by the 1400s, nobles inspired by Chaucer had begun writing poems known as “valentines” to their love interests. It was only at this point that stories began to appear linking Saint Valentine to romance.
But there’s one final twist in the myth of Saint Valentine: when Chaucer wrote of the day when every bird chooses a mate, he could have thought not of February 14, but of May 3, a day celebrating one of the many other Saint Valentines.
After all, England is still awfully cold in mid-February.
It seems that Chaucer was looking for a way to celebrate King Richard II’s betrothal to Anne of Bohemia on that day and found that was the feast day for Valentine of Genoa.Yes, he could have chosen the Feast of the Holy Cross, but that wouldn’t have sounded as nice in his poem. But, since his contemporaries were more familiar with the Feb. 14 Saint Valentine’s Day, that was the date that became attached to the new holiday of romance.
In some ways, that may be a good explanation.
But, in any case, gradually February 14 became a date for exchanging love messages, poems and flowers.
You can find Valentine’s skull in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.