Sunday, 8 January 2012

Do We Know Who the Real St Valentine Was?

The US Greeting Card Association estimates that around one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year around the world timed to arrive on the 14th February, a huge number that is only eclipsed by the number of Christmas cards sent annually.  The modern phenomenon that is St Valentine’s Day is a triumph of marketing and consumerism; a day where lovers take their partners out for meals in restaurants where the prices have been inflated for the day and plied with red roses, champagne, saucy lingerie, chocolates or expensive jewellery.  But what are the true origins of this St Valentine’s Day celebration?

We may view St Valentine as a saucy little cupid shooting love’s arrows, but in a less romantic reality St Valentine was probably not even one person. Valentine or Valentinus was the name of several saints in late antiquity, maybe as many as fifty, who were martyred during the Roman period.  The name Valentine derives from the Latin word ‘valens’ which means worthy and it was a fairly popular name back in those times.  One of those saints just happened to have a feast day that fell on February 14th and it was from this saint’s feast day that our modern celebrations for St Valentine’s Day have evolved. Very little is known about this obscure saint except for the fact that he was buried north of Rome on the Via Flaminia.  The feast day of St Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, and even then it seems as though very little was known about this saint as Valentine was included in the list of those ‘...whose names are greatly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God.’

Silver Reliquary of St Valentine

St Valentine does appear in several lists of martyrs or ‘martyrologies’, and he is described variously as a martyr in the Roman province of Africa, a bishop of Interamna or as a priest in Rome.  We have to wait until 1493 and the Nuremberg Chronicle to get the first graphical representation of St Valentine and his woodcut picture is accompanied by a text that states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus.

Emperor Claudius was busily persecuting the Christians in Rome at that time, and Valentine was arrested for marrying couples using the Christian rites and helping the Christians to evade the persecution.  He is said to have converted his jailer to Christianity by miraculously restoring the sight of his daughter.   Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a goodbye note reputedly signed ‘From Your Valentine’.  According to the legend the Roman Emperor then took a strong liking to Valentine, but he then tried to convert him to Christianity and was condemned to death for his zeal.  It is believed that he was clubbed and stoned, but that his executioners did not manage to kill him, so they eventually had to behead him outside of the Flaminian Gate in Rome.  Various dates have been put forward for Valentine’s martyrdom, including 269, 270 or 273 AD and in the Middle Ages two churches were built in Rome dedicated to this St Valentine.

Relics, believed to be those of St Valentine, were exhumed from the catacombs of St Hippolytus in 1836 and sent to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.  The casket containing the relics are carried in procession to the church’s high altar every February 14th for a special mass dedicated to young lovers.  As relics of saints tended to be  very numerous and widespread in the Middle Ages, there are also reputed relics of St Valentine in Stephansdom in Vienna, Roquemaure in France, the Gorbals in Glasgow and the Birmingham Oratory.

It was believed by two eighteenth century antiquarians, Alban Butler and Francis Douce that St Valentine may have been an invention of the early Roman Catholic Church as a means of suppressing the Roman pagan pastoral festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated on February 15th each year, but this theory is not universally upheld.   It is believed that during this Roman festival boys drew the names of girls to honour the goddess Februata Juno who was a goddess of fertility and physical love.  This was repeated in the Middle Ages when youngsters would draw a name out of a bowl to determine who their Valentine would be and then sew this name onto their sleeve for one week.  This is where the term ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ comes from, meaning that you are showing your feelings so clearly that other people easily can gauge exactly what you are feeling.

 St Valentine’s Day first became associated with romance and love in the 14th century in England, and many of the stories around this festival were created by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Parliament of Foules’.   In the ‘Parliament of Foules’ the story goes that the birds choose their mates on February 14th, and this is what is believed to have started the tradition of people sending letters to their loved ones on this date.  Another romantic tradition is the one of pinning bay leaves to your pillow on St Valentine’s Eve with the aim of dreaming of your future husband or wife.  There is also a tradition that if you see a robin flying above you on Valentine’s Day you will marry a sailor, if it was a sparrow that you saw you would be blissfully married to a pauper and if it was a goldfinch you would marry a very rich person.

The earliest known Valentine greeting was a rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, addressed to his ‘valentined’ wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  In 1797 ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ was produced in the UK, which contained romantic verses that young men could use for Valentine’s greetings if they were too shy or were unable to think up their own.  The nineteenth century ushered in the mass sending of greeting cards for Valentine’s Day and the practice of sending cards anonymously to someone that you fancied.

As there was so little information known about St Valentine, his feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic General Calendar for universal liturgical veneration in 1969.  However, St Valentine is not only the patron saint of lovers; his saintly patronage extends to apiarists, greeting card manufacturers, travellers, young people and he also offers protection from plague, epilepsy and fainting.

So while you are munching your chocolates, admiring your diamond or sipping your champagne, spare a thought for poor St Valentine who had to be stoned, clubbed and beheaded so that you can whisper sweet nothings to your loved one and send soppy greetings cards on the 14th February every year!

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