How did an obscure Roman martyr, who was never an important saint and to whom no church was ever dedicated in England, become the world wide patron of love and romance?
There are two Valentines in the Roman Martyrology, both commemorated on 14 February. One was a Roman priest martyred under the Emperor Claudius, the other a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), who was apparently martyred in Rome, around 197 or 273 CE. This Valentine was a physician, miracle worker and healer, beaten and then beheaded by order of the prefect Placid Furius during the reign of Aurelius. Altogether there were around 19 ancient and medieval saints named Valentine, including a north African one. The Roman Valentine was, according to tradition, executed on the Flaminian way, just outside Rome, and a basilica was subsequently erected on the site of his burial. This church was sufficiently important that by the twelfth century the nearby Roman gate (now the Porta del Popolo)was known as St Valentine’s gate. Terni, the Carmelite Friars of Dublin, and the Franciscans of Glasgow all now claim his relics. Around the mid-thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine, a Dominican preacher from Genoa, wrote the Golden Legend, which was to become the most widely read collection of stories about the saints, in the middle ages. Jacobus included a brief account of Valentine: in about 280 CE (more recent accounts suggest 269 CE) the elderly priest was summoned before the Emperor Claudius (Claudius Gothicus) and required to worship the gods, he refused and nearly managed to persuade the Emperor that only Christ should be worshipped, but a prefect intervened, and Claudius returned to his paganism, handing Valentine over to the prefect to guard him until his execution. When he entered the prefect’s house, Valentine invoked the light of Christ on the house. The prefect, who had a blind daughter called (in some accounts) Lucilla, challenged Valentine to cure her, and promised to obey him if he did. Valentine duly prayed over her and her sight was restored; as a result the whole household converted to Christianity, but the Emperor ordered Valentine beheaded.
However this account is a pious fiction. For a start scholars disagree as to whether the two Valentines above were different people or the same saint. The accounts of both probably date from around the fifth or sixth century, and it is possible that they are versions of the same story. More importantly the church on the Flaminian way dedicated to Valentine is not the burial site of a martyr as seems to have been believed from a fairly early date. Valentine was the donor who made it possible for Pope Julius I to build the church in c.350 CE. Such founders were often venerated as saints but there is no reason to think he was a priest or that he was martyred.
There is also nothing in the traditional account which would lead us to think of Valentine as a patron of lovers, and indeed it is likely that he has acquired this role purely by chance. Versions of his story in which he performed secret marriages for young lovers, or that he sent the first valentine to his gaoler’s daughter, signed ‘from your valentine’, are all later stories to try to explain why Valentine was seen as the patron of love. There are two theories about why Valentine might have become associated with love. In both cases it is because his feast day coincided with another event that was about love. The first is that it fell at about the same time as the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which young men ran through the streets and struck the women with goatskins to promote fertility. On the following day, young men drew the names of young women out of a box and the two paired up for the following year. It has been suggested that there was an attempt by the early Church to Christianise the festival. However it is more likely that the association came in the later middle ages. By the later fourteenth century it was widely believed in England and France that 14 February was the day on which birds chose their mates. Chaucer refers to the idea in his poem The Parliament of Fowls: ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day/Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate’. By the early fifteenth century the poet Lydgate referred to a custom that may have grown up since Chaucer’s day, of choosing a beloved on the day. By the later fifteenth century a young gentlewoman, Margery Brews could address her intended as ‘my right well beloved Valentine’.
The custom seems to have remained a predominantly gentry one through the sixteenth century and survived the Reformation and the abolition of Valentine’s feast day. By the mid-seventeenth the custom of giving gifts on St Valentine’s was well-established across the whole social range. However by the eighteenth century there seem to have been regional differences: in the south, your Valentine was either chosen out of affection or was the first person of the opposite sex that you met in the morning, whereas in the north valentines were often chosen by lot. In late seventeenth century London Samuel Pepys paid a young man to call on his wife and to give her presents such as a ring. One year when Samuel was hard up no young man arrived and Elizabeth was displeased! In the early nineteenth century around Norwich it was common for parents or family friends to leave gifts for children, such as sweets or pencils, on the windowsill from ‘Uncle Valentine’. Valentine cards date from the mid eighteenth century with the earliest known one in Hull Museum. Commercial cards became common from the early nineteenth century. In something of a reaction to the lace and sentimentality, mocking or ‘indecent’ cards could be sent from the 1870s. These brought the custom into disrepute and the sending of Valentines cards had practically died out by the First World War. It was revived in a small way in the 1920s, but it was American influence in the 1950s which was the start of the modern form of Valentine’s Day.
Images are rare and he is generally represented as a bishop, sometimes with a blind girl, or refusing to worship idols, being beheaded or holding the sword of his martyrdom.
There is a painting of him by Jacopo Bassano, of c.1575 at
My principal sources, beyond the list, were: Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints, online Catholic Encyclopedia, and for the post-medieval developments, Ronald Hutton’s extremely useful Stations of the Sun.
Dr Pat Cullum,
Head of History,
University of Huddersfield,
Tel. (01484) 472315
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