Lacy hearts, Cupid and candy. Charlie Brown and the little red haired girl. Hallmark and ProFlowers. All are things that immediately come to mind whenever Valentine’s Day approaches. But lost in what the more cynical among us claim is a holiday foisted upon us by retailers in the long post-Christmas spending spree is knowing who Valentine was. Origins are a bit sketch on this point and almost nothing is known about these early Christian men other that they died for love. More specifically they died for their love of Christ. Here’s a primer.
At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna, and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known. Some sources cite as many as fourteen martyrs who shared the name Valentine.
The origin of St. Valentine, and how many St. Valentines there were, remains a mystery. One opinion is that he was a Roman martyred for refusing to give up his Christian faith. Other historians hold that St. Valentine was a temple priest jailed for defiance during the reign of Claudius. Whoever he was, Valentine really existed because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.
The most known Valentine was a priest in Rome, who, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II, known as Claudius Gothicus. He was apprehended imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were being persecuted by Claudius in Rome, which was a crime at the time. He was sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his promises to make him renounce his faith in effectual, condemned him to be beaten with clubs and stones. When that failed to kill him he was beheaded outside of the Flaminian Gate on February 14, about the year 270.
The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes about a match she hopes to make for her daughter, addressing the favored suitor:
And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
Shortly after the young lady herself wrote a letter to the same man addressing it “Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”.
This feast day of St. Valentine, becoming associated with romantic love, along with the medieval revival of interest in classic literature, led to the practice of using Cupid in place of the Christian martyr. In Roman mythology, Cupid, the son of Venus, was a winged immortal who had the mischievous habit of shooting invisible arrows into the hearts of mortals, which inflamed them with blind and helpless passion – for the next person they might see.
Sources: catholic.org, newadvent.com, lonekeep.com, Wikipedia.