Who is the Valentine behind Valentine's Day?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2,000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

On 14 February a huge number of cards, flowers, chocolates, and other gifts will be given as a celebration of romantic love. In 2021, despite lockdown, it has been estimated that somewhere in the region of 40 million UK adults (or 76%) celebrated Valentine's Day and spent £926 million (or, on average, £23 per person).

If one wants to get a better idea of the impact of the day, pre-lockdown, then the stats for 2020 are available. In the pre-lockdown UK, the number estimated to be celebrating the event stood at 41.4 million and spent £1.45 billion (or £35 per person). It has been estimated that about 25 million Valentine's Cards are sent every year in the UK.

Clearly, Valentine's Day is now accompanied by a massive commercial operation and is hugely popular. Who says that romance is dead?!

However, the modern event has intriguing roots and these, ultimately, go back to one early Christian and the traditions that became associated with him.

The real 'Valentine'?

We don't know exactly who he was. A late-medieval tradition (which may be correct) is that he was beheaded in the vicinity of Rome. This, it is alleged, occurred on the orders of the 'Emperor Claudius.' This is usually assumed to refer to Claudius Gothicus, also known as Claudius II (emperor 268–270), which would place his martyrdom in the second half of the third century. The medieval account (from the fifteenth century) identifies him as a priest who assisted Christian couples to marry. A different account claims that Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, in central Italy, but also asserts that he was martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome.

One strand of the tradition explains that the Roman emperor decided to ban marriage for young men in the military, but Valentine defied the edict and continued to conduct marriage ceremonies for young lovers. Another version of the legend places Valentine in prison, where he fell in love with a young woman who visited him. Shortly before his execution, it is claimed that he wrote her a letter signed 'From your Valentine.' These are clearly romantic embellishments of an earlier (and sparse) account of imprisonment and execution.

As early as 496, the church was frank about how little was known about him, naming him as a martyr whose deeds were "known only to God." In 1969 the Catholic Church recognised this by removing him from the list of those liturgically venerated. However, he still remains as one of those officially classified as 'saints.'

Just to confuse things, after Valentine there were about twelve other 'Valentines' whose deeds were celebrated by the Catholic Church, including a pope who was in office for forty days c. 827. Three of these were also martyred for their Christian faith.

Today the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, displays a flower-adorned skull, claimed to be that of the original Valentine. Other relics – claimed to be from his body – can be found in places as far removed as England, Scotland, Ireland, the Czech Republic and France.

What links the original Valentine to the modern event is clearly that assistance given to Christian couples and their weddings. This has made him the patron saint of lovers, engaged couples, and marriages. Incidentally, he is also the patron saint of beekeeping and epilepsy, as well as plague, fainting, and travel.

The association with love and romance can be attested in England from as early as the fourteenth century.

The making of a saint of romance

The earliest record of the romantic tradition in England probably dates from the 1380s, when the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (writer of 'The Canterbury Tales') included two lines in his poem, 'Parliament of Foules,' which read: "For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day/Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."

Although he does not unpackage the tradition, it seems that, by the late fourteenth century, the day commemorating St Valentine was becoming associated with spring and birds finding mates.

However, to confuse things, Chaucer also mentioned Valentine in another poem which reads:

"Saint Valentine, that art full high aloft,

Thus singen smalle fowles for thy sake:

Now welcome Summer with tye sunne soft,

That hast this winter's weathers overshake."

That does not sound much like 14 February ("Now welcome Summer"!) and some experts think that Chaucer was thinking of a different Valentine: Valentine of Genoa, who died around 307, and was commemorated on 3 May.

On the other hand, it is possible that Chaucer wrote as he did because there was a pre-existing connection in folklore between the supposed date of Valentine's martyrdom and memories of the Roman festival of Lupercalia (15 February), which was associated with fertility. Or maybe Chaucer – a well-read poet – invented the connection because he knew about the Lupercalia from his Classical knowledge and linked this to Valentine's Day and a season when medieval observers had noticed that birds were beginning their courtship. It is hard to decide.

Despite the apparent confusion, Chaucer was not the only one to connect Valentine with finding mates. This idea developed further, as the link with romantic human love was made by several writers at the time, both on the continent and in England: Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate. Lydgate, in about 1440, was the first in England to record a tradition that the date was marked by expressions of romantic love as people "choose their choice, by great affection."

Whether Lydgate referred to a widespread activity or one confined to the royal court is hard to tell. The earliest surviving Valentine poem was written by the French aristocrat Charles d'Orléans, a prisoner in the Tower of London since the battle of Agincourt (1415). He wrote it to "Ma tres doulce Valentinée" (My very gentle Valentine), a line which appears three times in the poem.

And the rest is history...

From this time on, the giving of tokens of romantic affection by both sexes became associated with the day. In some fifteenth-century traditions the one receiving the token was chosen by lot. How far down the social scale these activities occurred is impossible to tell.

By the seventeenth century the celebration was widespread, and Samuel Pepys mentions traditions associated with it in the 1660s. Records from the eighteenth century show mixed traditions of tokens given to sweethearts but also, in some areas, to someone chosen by lot.

At the same time the practice of anonymously sending Valentine tokens increased and remains a feature of the tradition today for many. By the 1840s, these were taking the form of commercially produced 'Valentine Cards.' The first were decorated with lace or satin, but by the 1870s cheap printed cards were available. In 1880, 1.5 million Valentine Cards were delivered by the Post Office.

In the early twentieth century the practice went into decline and, by 1914, few such cards were being sent. However, there was something of a revival in the 1920s and 1930s, which expanded massively in the 1950s. This was assisted by a new consumerism and encouraged by trends in the USA. And it has gone on from there.

What is extraordinary is that the modern (highly commercialised) event, has its roots in a person who – if the tradition is correct – suffered execution for supporting young, engaged couples whose love caused them to defy the power of a ruthless state. It also promotes romantic love and mutual affirmation, which (if we combine it with commitment, care, and faithfulness) is worthy of celebration. Or maybe I am just an old romantic!

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021).