Valentine Day Origins

Two days ago I shared a brief history of the man/men who unwittingly lent their name to this holiday now associated with romance. Not sure how they would feel when one considered they had to be martyred first! You can read that post here: Will the Real Valentine Speak Up?

As fascinating as the stories behind Saint Valentine are, the logical question to ask is: How did we get from a lesser known saint amongst the thousands, to this day of lovers and romance that is celebrated practically everywhere? The credit seems to be equally shared by the medieval church’s need to circumvent pagan holidays and rituals, and the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lupercalia celebration in ancient Rome

For some 800 years the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia on February 15. Dedicated to the god Lupercus, the various rituals attached had more to do with fertility and illicit sex than love. During this time there were also feasts to honor the goddess Februata Juno and god Pan, both associated with purifying and fertility. The observances were related and the customs varied from place to place, but one can easily imagine how ribald many became and why the Church would strive to eradicate the sinful practices, or at least lend an air of sweetness to them. The feast day for Saint Valentine that Pope Gelasius I established in 496 (*see previous post) was most likely as much, if not more, about the desire to place a religious tone upon the pagan celebrations than it was about honoring Valentine.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who looks nothing like Paul Bettany in Knight’s Tale!

The concrete link for romantic love and Valentine is given to Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1382 he penned Parlement of Foules, a love poem to honor the engagement between England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
When every foul cometh there to choose his mate

What is interesting here is that birds do not mate in February. Undoubtedly Chaucer knew this, so there is some speculation that he was not referring to February 14 but to May 2. This was the saint’s day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, who died in May of 307. Others claim that it was a common misconception in the medieval world that birds began courting in February, so Chaucer was following standard beliefs and did mean February 14. Whatever the truth, the romantic nature of the poem stuck and became the launching point.

From this time forward there are numerous French and English literary references to February 14 and St. Valentine’s Day as a proper occasion for love letters and romantic tokens. On Saint Valentine’s Day in 1400 the High Court of Love was opened in Paris specifically to deal with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses.  The oldest known Valentine note still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. In this French poem he refers to his wife as ‘Ma tres doulce Valentinée.

Literary references from this period include Cinkante Ballades by John Gower (a contemporary and personal friend of Chaucer), and the Paston Letters (late 1400s) by Dame Elizabeth Brews, where she writes about a perspective mate for her daughter being finalized on Valentine’s Day. It is believed that King Henry V (1383-1422)  hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose his Valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By 1600 Valentine’s Day was an established part of English life. Shakespeare off-handedly mentions the day in Ophelia’s lament to Hamlet–

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

For several centuries poems and hand written love notes appear to be the extent of Valentine Day celebrating.  When did the holiday for lovers really take off and inspire the consumer-driven day we are familiar with? Come back on Wednesday for more information!

joseph fiennes shakespeare in love
William Shakespeare…. Okay, it is Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, but nicer to look at, right?



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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