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From the Pen of History - St. Valentine and St. Valentine's Day

Any student of the Middle Ages, regardless of their own faith, is familiar with the Calendar of Saints, and the myriad of "Saint's Days" that filled the lives of medieval man. This calendar evolved over the centuries, with some of the oldest saints no longer being formally venerated by the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, largely because their origins and histories cannot be verified. St. Christopher is one such saint, St. Brigid, another. But formally venerated or not, a number of these mysterious figures from the earliest centuries of the Christian era have had their feast days survive as holidays in modern, secular culture, such as those of St. Patrick or St. Valentine.

Every school child knows the story of St. Patrick "driving the snakes out of Ireland". But the "personage" we associate with Valentine's Day is Cupid, if it is anyone at all. So who exactly was St. Valentine, and how did February 14th become associated with romance and lovers? As it turns out, there is no quick and ready answer to these questions.


Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up?


Valentinus (from valens, potent or worthy, so "the worthy one") was a popular name in late Antiquity, and just within the Catholic Church there are seven saints of that name. Normally, this isn't a problem; there are several Gregorys,  Johns,  James, etc., and each has their own feast day and history. Not so the man venerated on February 14th. Although the official Roman Martyrology (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09741a.htm) names only one man associated with this feast day, "the blessed martyr, buried in the Via Flaminia, north of Rome", it tells us nothing else about him. 

The name "Valentinus" itself does not appear in the list of saints until it was added by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD. Gelasius added Valentine amongst those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God".  The implication here is that nothing was really known about this group of saints, but they had been informally venerated within the Church for some time. However, following Gelasius' addition of Valentinus and his feast on February 14th, his name appears continuously on the roll of saints. Further, later martyrologies begin ascribing brief histories to his name, but the only time more than one early source agrees with another is when a later source was clearly drawing from an earlier. Some of the many origins for St. Valentine include a Roman priest martyred by Claudius Gothicus in the third century, a bishop of Termi, and a non-clerical, second century martyr from the province of Africa. With no clear source for any of these origin stories, any or none of them may be accurate. Certainly, Valentinus remained a shadowy figure in medieval sources until Jacobus de Voraigne, Archbishop of Genoa compiled his own lives of the saints, theLegenda Aurea ("Golden Legend") around 1260. De Voraigne's source was that of a priest martyred by Claudius II Gothicus for refusing to deny Christ. DeVoraigne adds a year -280 AD -and a means of execution - beheading - but little else. Since the Legenda Aurea was one of the most widely copied and read books of the High and Late Middle Ages, this became the "default" history of the man venerated on February 14th, with later writers adding their own flourishes to the legend (and routinely changing the year of the martyrdom). By the turn of the 16th century, there is a far more complete tale: Valentinus was a priest living in Rome, who was arrested and imprisoned for marrying Christian couples and helping them to flee Rome. He was brought before the Emperor, and because of his gift with words and his skills in debate, Claudius took a liking to him, right until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor. The suddenly humorless Claudius ordered him beaten to death, and when that failed, his broken body was dragged outside the Flaminian Gate and he was beheaded and left in the street, whereupon he was quietly buried at night by Roman Christians.


It is a Day for Lovers…no, really!


So, whether by hagiography or fabrication, Valentinus had a complete, if brief, legend, and an association with young couples in love (although he was also the patron of bee keepers and epileptics) by the Renaissance. But what about all of the charming customs for young lovers associate with his feast day? When exactly did this begin?


Since the 18th century, historians and antiquarians have argued Valentine's Day was yet another Christianization of an existing, pagan holiday. In this case, they argued that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's feast in the middle of February in an effort to Christianize the pagan celebrations of Lupercalia, a fertility ritual that took place on February 13 - 15. Further "evidence" of this was that Lupercalia was abolished by Pope Gelasius I, the same pontiff who formally added Valentinus to the list of saints, and who set his feast day as February 14. The evidence seems compelling - a saintly feast day honoring lovers, set in the middle of a pagan fertility holiday by the pope who sought to do away with that holiday in the first place.


The problem, of course, is that as we've seen, this "evidence" is not actually all contemporaneous. Gelasius did not assign an area of patronage to Valentinus, and indeed, suggested that he himself had no idea what his origins were, merely that he had been venerated for some time. The association with betrothed couples cannot be documented until the 13thcentury, and even if we assume that it had been the "commonly accepted" biography of St. Valentine for generations, we cannot credibly stretch this back to the 5thcentury. So while Gelasius certainly did away with Lupercallia and added feast days to replace it, it is most likely that he was thinking not of Valentine, but of feast days devoted to the Virgin Mary to replace those of Juno Februa , or "Pure Juno" (pure in the sense of "chaste").


According to Alban Butler the author of the famous Butler's Lives of the Saints, this ancient association between Lupercalia and St. Valentine's Day as a celebration of romantic love was further established by no less a person that Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in his Parlement of Foules (1382), also called the Parlement of Birds:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

Chaucer goes on to describe many ancient romantic customs, as his narrator takes a journey into the celestial realm of Venus herself. Again, Butler's evidence seems compelling; added to the story of Pope Gelasius and Lupercalia, we have one of the great medieval writers associating St. Valentine/Valentinus with the Roman goddess Venus and a number of ancient customs performed in her honor. Indeed, Butler's conclusions seemed so sound that they went unquestioned for generations.

Sadly, there are several problems with this. The first is that the Parlement of Foules was written to honor the anniversary of the betrothal between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. The date of the betrothal is not February 14, but May 2, the Feast of St. Valentine of Genoa, a fourth century bishop, not our mysterious martyr buried in the Via Flaminia. The only element that the two Valentines share in common is an association with birds, which oddly enough may be a clue to our answer, as we will see below.

The second major problem is that, even had Chaucer been speaking of our Valentine, his ancient ceremonies and customs were nothing of the sort - they were created whole cloth for the Parlement, so they are no more a reflection of either Lupercalia or a Christianized survival of that festival than the Wife of Bath was a fictionalized Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Nevertheless, somewhere around this time the familiar association between Valentine and lovers has been established. Our earliest surviving "valentine" letter is from only a few decades later, and written by no less a personage than Charles, Duke or Orleans, himself, penned to his wife as he sat captive in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt:

Je suis desja d'amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

(I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine)

Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
M'a de vous, pour toute l'année.

(Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives he who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.)

Je suis desja d'amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

(I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine)


Bien m'estoye suspeconné,
Qu'auroye telle destinée,
Ains que passast ceste journée,
Combien qu'Amours l'eust ordonné..

(Well might I have suspected,
That such a destiny,
Thus would have happened this day,
How much that Love would have commanded.)

Je suis desja d'amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

(I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine)


We shall never be certain how a virtually unknown saint became associated with lovers, but our best guess is that it must be laid back at the feet ofJacobus de Voraigne and his Legenda Aurea. What seems likely is that, although the Church did not specifically use Valentinus' feast as a Christianized fertility celebration, Lupercalian traditions survived in a vestigial form throughout the early Middle Ages. By the 13thcentury, there was still enough of an association to have either influenced de Voraigne, or his sources, so that Valentinus' biography had slowly grown to center around his patronage of young lovers. Further, as Archbishop of Genoa, de Voraigne would have been familiar with the hagiography of that other St. Valentine, his 4thcentury predecessor, and either intentionally borrowed from his cult or conflated him with the martyr of the Via Flaminia. Whichever the case, the popularity of the Legenda Aurea, copied and recopied in scriptoriums and universities throughout the 14thcentury, meant that de Voraigne's account and association, and its later additions, complete with lovers, birds and bees, became the "official" account in the Latin West. Whether Chaucer believed the saints venerated on February 14thand May 2ndto be one and the same person or not, his Parlement of Birds is simply the first surviving record of a transformation that seems to have been well established by 1400 - that of "being one's valentine".  Certainly, this only took deeper root in the centuries that followed, so that there can be no doubt that the feast day had its modern meaning by 1600, when Shakespeare wrote:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

(Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V)

Whatever Valentine's Day's precise origin or evolution, if our mysterious martyr's true history and acts remain "known only to God",  perhaps there are worse ways to be "reverenced amongst men",  than in an ancient feast day, harkening back to even older celebrations of love that have long been entrenched in Western culture.

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