It may seem that Hallmark and the candy companies invented this holiday, but the celebration of this feast on Feb 14th dates back 1500 years
Saint Valentine of Rome was martyred on February 14 in AD 269. The Feast of Saint Valentine, also known as Saint Valentine’s Day, was established by Pope Gelasius I in AD 496 to be celebrated on February 14.
Of course that feast originally had nothing to do with romance. St. Valentine was the patron saint of funny hats. I made that up, of course, but the truth is almost as silly. He was the patron saint of epilepsy and beekeeping.
The feast acquired its modern meaning about 600 years ago, and the romantic associations were either invented by or first documented by ol’ Jeff Chaucer himself: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (The last three words would be “choose his mate” in modern English. The rest is self-explanatory.)
The fact that Chaucer was the first to mention the romantic angle could have happened because Chaucer was pretty much the only significant English author in that era, and few came before him. That was an era when few were literate and those who could read and write were generally reading and transcribing classical texts and sacred works. The printing press had not yet been invented. Anybody who scribbled an original thought, and was in a position to distribute it to literate people, could rise immediately to second place on the most-read list. (The Bible had a centuries-old stronghold on the top spot.) It is therefore possible that the association of Valentine’s Day with romance existed undocumented for centuries before Chaucer wrote about it.
Both Shakespeare and John Gay commented on Chaucer’s reference to the mating birds of St. Valentine’s Day.
- Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (around 1590): “Saint Valentine is past. Begin these wood birds but to couple now?”
- John Gay wrote in The Shepherd’s Week (1714): “Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind their paramours with mutual chirpings find.”
The weather of England must have been quite mild in those days if they associated February 14th with chirping birds.
The printing press appeared in the century after Chaucer’s, and soon thereafter came the earliest surviving, well-documented “Be My Valentine” note that we know of, in a subsequently published letter that Margery Brews wrote to her fiancé John Paston in 1477, calling him her “right well-beloved valentine.”
In the original text: “Unto my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn, John Paston, Squyer, be this bill delyvered.”
Bottom line: That lovey-dovey Valentine crap has been in the English-speaking world for a good while, since long before Whitman invented the sampler.
Most macabre St. Valentine trivia:
The flower-crowned alleged skull of St. Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.