Valentine’s day – a day for young lovers, elderly romantics and empowered singletons. For several centuries it has been the designated date for organised displays of love and intimacy. But whence does it come and who’s this fella by the name of Valentine we celebrate?
Conventional belief is that February 14th marks the death of St. Valentine; the Christian patron for love. Although St. Valentine (or Valentines) are documented to have lived and died on February 14th, the profile of a love-crazy saint lacks historical backing. Sources such as the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ list Valentines that do not correspond with the idea of an enchanting swain.
In fact, the plausible histories we do have lack any seductive thread of romance. In antiquity, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus (269-270 A.D.), we have documented a Valentinus who helped bring salvation to many pagans of ancient Rome. A pagan named Asterius came to Valentinus and wished for his blind foster daughter to recover her sight. Calling upon the healing powers of Jesus Christ, Valentinus was able to give Asterius’s daughter sight and the family duly converted to Christianity. When Emperor Claudius found out, Valentinus, Asterius and his family were all executed.
So if St. Valentinus doesn’t get us anywhere with understanding why February 14th is all about love, maybe the origins of the festival will reveal more?
Similar to Christmas and Easter, it has been argued that Valentine’s day is a replacement for an earlier pagan festival which went by the name of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a carnival that took place in the streets of ancient Rome where young men would run through the city dressed in a thong made out of newly killed goats. Lupercalia was believed to bring healthy babies to expecting mothers.
But this still doesn’t get us much closer – we need to look at medieval England – specifically at Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Chaucer made the association between February as bird mating system, with sending loved ones romantic letters and poetry. It caught on and soon all of European nobility started doing it. From there, Shakespeare got involved and St. Valentine’s day as we know it became established.
Happy Valentine’s day!