This week’s column is an unsolicited love letter to St. Valentine.
While I’ll admit that I may be somewhat of a rarity when it comes to my fascination with medieval history, courtly love and all things Chaucer-adjacent, the story of St. Valentine is one of those repurposed histories that we should all know more about — especially since the National Retail Federation estimates that Valentine’s Day spending will top
$27 billion (!) this year.
But the story of St. Valentine isn’t all candy hearts and roses.
Full disclosure: I don’t have a ton of intel about the guy, other than he was (probably) a Christian priest who lived and died in third-century Italy. But Lisa Bitel, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, has a much more detailed scoop on the life and oddly lovey-dovey legacy of the martyr who gave his name to our mid-February holiday.
First of all, there were possibly two (or more) St. Valentines.
“Ancient sources reveal that there were several St. Valentines who died on Feb. 14,” Bitel notes. “Two of them were executed during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269-270 A.D., at a time when persecution of Christians was common.”
As part of the story goes, St. Valentine may have brought on the ire of the Roman empire by performing illegal, Christian marriage ceremonies despite that fact that, according to The Journal of Roman Studies, “Roman soldiers were forbidden by law to contract a marriage during their period of military service.”
Apparently, Emperor Claudius — aka Claudius the Cruel — and preceding emperors believed that married soldiers made bad soldiers, presumably because men with wives and children at home were less willing to lay down their lives in defense of the empire.
(Clearly, emperor Claud was quite the hopeless romantic.)
But back to the story: When Valentine was caught defying the emperor, Claudius demanded that he renounce Christ, the priest refused and he was imprisoned before ultimately being beheaded on Feb. 14, 269 A.D.
Which, technically, means every time you wish someone a “happy Valentine’s Day,” you’re actually celebrating the date that an ancient priest had his head chopped off.
In all fairness, it has been nearly two millennia since poor Valentinus met his demise, and in the intervening centuries the history behind the holiday has been further diluted by more than a few rebranding efforts.
Bitel explains that the first celebrations on Feb. 14 actually began as a liturgical feast meant to honor St. Valentine’s martyrdom on the anniversary of his execution.
And, according to History.com, by the end of the fifth century “the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to ‘Christianize’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalia,” which was a fertility festival celebrated on Feb. 15.
The holiday took on an even more pivotal shift when, in the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that Feb. 14 was the start of mating season for birds.
Consequently, Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, “Parliament of Foules,” written in 1375, was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration.
There are, of course, still several centuries of history and tradition between Chaucer penning his poem and our modern Valentine’s Day, which is now celebrated all over the globe, including in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K., France and Australia.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even get to touch on the rise of Valentine’s Day cards which, in Victorian England, saw the popularity of “vinegar valentines,” missives that — hilariously — contained acerbic messages meant to fend off unwanted romantic advances.
As a whole, the story of Valentinus, and the holiday that took his name, is really the story of our love/hate (but mostly love) relationship with one another — and that’s definitely something to celebrate.
To learn more about the history of this and other holidays we know and love, check out: “America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories” by Bruce Forbes.
• Krystal Corbray is programming and marketing librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries. Learn more at www.yvl.org.