We all know what Valentine's Day means today--it's a time to send and receive flowers, chocolates, and other romantic gifts; a time to show our appreciation for our significant other; generally, a time to honor the romance in our lives. But most of us don't realize that Valentine's Day has a long history--and much of it had little to do with romantic love.
Valentine's Day is shrouded in legend, but not much is known about the actual history of the day. The earliest associations with Valentine's Day date from the time of the Roman Empire, when fertility rituals typically took place in the month of February. In calendars from the time of the ancient Athenians, the time between the middle of January and the middle of February was called "Garmelion," and was associated with the marriage between Zeus and Hera. Since Zeus was hardly a model husband, this is not a blindingly romantic association.
During the Roman fertility ritual of Lupercalia, contemporary accounts tell of young noblemen running through the streets of Rome stark naked, striking anyone they met with leather thongs. Women would intentionally get in their way, believing that the strike fostered pregnancy and easy delivery. Interesting . . . but not very romantic.
St. Valentine himself is another mystery. There are several legends surrounding the "St. Valentine" figure. The earliest known legends say that St. Valentine was arrested for being Christian, and questioned in person by Emperor Claudius of Rome. Legend has it that the Emperor liked Valentine, and tried to get him to convert to paganism so that his life might be saved. Of course, Valentine refused--and tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity instead. He was executed for his troubles.
This legend has no association to romance, and throughout the years, writers have tried to make the legend more closely associated with love. In one, Valentine is a Christian priest living during the time of Emperor Claudius. According to legend, Claudius was trying to recruit men for the Roman Army--and failing. The men were refusing to leave their wives. Claudius became angry enough to forbid any new marriages throughout the Roman Empire. Valentine refused to honor the Emperor's decree, secretly marrying many couples before he was found out, thrown in jail, and eventually killed. Another legend claims that he cured his jailor's daughter of blindness before he died.
Actually, there are several holy men named Valentine who could be the saint in question. One of them was indeed a Roman priest; another was a bishop, and a third was a martyr believed to be from the Roman province of Africa. St. Valentine's Day was not declared a holiday until 496, when Pope Gelasius I gave it a date of February 14th. Even then, it was celebrated as a normal feast day to honor the saint, with no connection to romance. The pope described St. Valentine as among saints whose "names are reverenced among men, but whose deeds are known only to God." His birthplace and date of birth were unknown.
The first known association of Valentine's Day with love came from Geoffrey Chaucer. In his poem, "Parlement of Foules," written in 1382, Valentine's Day was said to be the day when all the birds chose their mates for the year. The poem was written to honor the engagement of England's King, Richard II, to Anne of Bohemia. The poem alludes to this as an old and venerable tradition; however, there are no records of Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday before this time. It's likely that Chaucer was the father of our modern-day holiday.
Valentine's Day took off soon after that--it fit in perfectly with the French nobility's ongoing infatuation with courtly love. While the term "courtly love" wasn't coined until the late 1800's, the principles of it can be found in literature dating as far back as the 12th century. In this idealized vision of romance, a knight or nobleman would fall in love with a beautiful woman--always a woman of a higher class, and usually somebody else's wife. His love would be unattainable, but he would still work to make himself worthy of her by undertaking dangerous quests in her name and performing any harrowing task she might ask for. Courtly love is found everywhere in literature from the legends of King Arthur to the poetry of Plutarch and Shakespeare.
During the 1400's, a "High Court of Love" was founded in Paris. It was an attempt to apply the language of law at the time to romantic conflicts including betrayals, violence against women, and contracts of love. The court was established on Valentine's Day, and its judges were chosen based on the eloquence of their poetry.
The earliest known valentine was sent from the Duke of Orleans to his wife. The Duke was being held in the Tower of London after the English army captured him at the Battle of Agincourt. The valentine was a rondeau, addressed to the Duke's "Valentined wife."
The tradition of exchanging love notes and cards on Valentine's Day continued for several centuries, and was eventually exported to the New World. Around 1847, Esther Howland, the daughter of a stationery-store owner, began mass-producing Valentine's Day cards. The cards were made of embossed paper and lace, and Esther claimed to have been inspired by a Valentine given to her by a sweetheart in England.
Today, Valentine's Day is celebrated by everyone from children to adults. Next time you sign your name to a Valentine's Day card or pick up a Valentine gift for your loved one, remember the mysterious origins of the holiday--it's sure to make your experience of it richer.