Who was St. Valentine and why does he somehow bless the hearts of lovers in the middle of February? One can imagine some combination of a cherubic Cupid and a saintly old man with a nice smile fulfilling that role. The truth is, of course, more complicated. First of all, there was not just one Saint Valentine. And the one we most commonly associate with the holiday was a martyr who happened to be beheaded on February 14th in a story that is hardly romantic.
There were actually three men named Saint Valentine who all lived around the same time in the third century AD. Two of these men, known as Saint Valentine of Rome and Saint Valentine of Terni, lived in Italy. And the third was in a Roman province in North Africa.
The one we officially celebrate on Valentine’s Day is the Saint Valentine of Rome, but it’s likely the stories of several Valentines merged into one over time since “Valentius” (meaning “worthy,” “strong” and “powerful” in Latin) was a popular moniker at the time. Several martyrs ended up with that name.
The church itself has some doubts about what specifically happened in Saint Valentine’s life. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I described St. Valentine’s as a martyr like those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” He knew how little was really known about the saint while establishing February 14th as the day to celebrate St. Valentine’s life.
St. Valentine of Rome was supposedly a temple priest who was executed near Rome by the anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II for helping wed Roman soldiers who were not allowed to marry in the Christian faith.
St. Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy) was a bishop who was also martyred. It is additionally possible they there the same person – one biography says Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna but when he was on a temporary stay in Rome, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded there on February 14, 269 A.D.
According to one storyline, the Roman Emperor went to such measures against Valentine because the saint tried to get him to convert to Christianity. This just enraged Claudius who tried to get Valentine to renounce his faith. The martyr refused, so the emperor ordered him beaten with clubs and stones and subsequently executed.
One or both of the St. Valentines are thought to be buried in a cemetery in the north of Rome. Little is known about the third Valentine in North Africa other than his supposed martyrdom.
How did we go from Christian martyrs to Hallmark cards? When Pope Gelasius I dedicated February 14th to the saint and martyr Valentine, he chose that date to replace the traditional Roman feast Lupercalia, which took place during that time. Lupercalia was a fertility festival in honor of the god Faunus (Lupercus), the protector of sheep and goats from wolf attacks, as well as Lupa – the she-wolf who nurtured the orphans Romulus and Remus, associated with the founding of Rome by legend.
The pagan fertility celebration was marked by all manner of rituals like foot racing among naked men, covered in skins of sacrificed goats. Apparently, they would whip women staged along the race course as they ran. Another ritual involved a child randomly pairing up couples that would have to live together and be intimate for the next year in order to fulfill the fertility rite. The church was eager to replace such practices with its own focus and St. Valentine became the saint of lovers.
As celebrating St. Valentine’s Day spread to England and France by Benedictine monks, the practice started to acquire more modern characteristics in the Middle Ages. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in particular, is credited with spreading the notion of courtly romance through his writings, some dedicated to St. Valentine.
Writing “valentines” to your beloved is linked to that same time period, with the oldest such note dating to the 15h century. As reported by Italian Heritage, it was written by Charles d’ Orléans, who was at that point held in the Tower of London, following his defeat at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Charles wrote to his wife the words that translated to: “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine”.
Shakespeare also took part in popularizing the link between Valentine’s Day and love, writing about St. Valentine’s day in a romantic context as part of his “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Exchanging “valentines” or love notes (often heart-shaped) on Valentine’s Day further spread throughout Anglo-Saxon countries in the 19th century. Large-scale marketing and production of greetings cards started with the Industrial Revolution as early as mid-19th century. This process of commercialization of the holiday continued, especially in the United States, during the 20th century, adding additional traditions like the love notes becoming more elaborate, with added gifts like chocolates, flowers and jewelry.
So while the original St. Valentine was likely tortured and beheaded on February 14th, his sacrifice for the Christian faith morphed by history into the Valentine’s Day we have today. Spread the love.