How a martyred saint became a Valentine’s Day legend

Ah, Valentine’s Day, a special time of the year when love truly is in the air.
February 14 has become a global phenomenon but have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Who is this Valentine who gets a whole day to themselves and how did it become such a big deal?

St Valentine Kneeling In Supplication by David Teniers II

Valentine’s Day as we know it, started out as the Feast of Saint Valentine, a day in the Christian calendar celebrating the titular saint. As for who Saint Valentine is, the truth is that no one’s really sure.

The most popular candidate is Valentine of Rome, a Roman priest who was martyred in 269AD and added to the list of saints by Pope Galesius in 496AD.

According to legend, this Valentine became famous for ministering to persecuted Christians in the area. In addition, he also oversaw secret marriages for Roman soldiers since they were forbidden to marry under Roman law.

He was eventually captured and brought before Emperor Claudius II to be interrogated and tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. Needless to say, Claudius wasn’t all too pleased with this and ordered Valentine put to death.

Before he was killed, Valentine reportedly performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius.

It is also said that this Valentine created the first ever Valentine’s card after signing a letter to Julia with “From your Valentine”.

His flower-crowned skull is now exhibited in the Basilica of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

So how did the feast of a martyred saint become the universal day of romantic love?
There are many theories about this.

Some have linked the original St Valentine’s Day to the ancient Roman festival known as Lupercalia celebrating health and fertility although the evidence supporting this is thin.

The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love can be found in English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1382 poem Parlement of Foules [Parliament of Birds]:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.
[“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,
when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

The poem was in honour of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia.

The first time Valentine’s Day was described as an annual celebration of love was in Charles VI of France’s 1400 Charter of the Court of Love which describes an extravagant festival hosted by members of the royal court.

Meanwhile, the oldest surviving Valentine’s poem dates all the way back to the 1415 and was written by Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife while he was held in the Tower of London after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt in:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée . . . .
[I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine].

So when you’re buying your lover a box of chocolates and red roses, remember that you are partaking in a noble tradition that stretches back hundreds of years.


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