Written by Mahdeen Shafee
St Valentine’s Day, now commonly known as Valentine’s Day, is the yearly tradition of gift-giving or expressing love and affection, usually in a romantic context. The origins behind this day are in fact quite unclear, and some of them—such as who St Valentine was–are still considered legend. Over time, Valentine’s Day has become closely related to romance; this may have come from interpretations of fourteenth and fifteenth century poets, notably Geoffrey Chaucer and his poem ‘Parliament of Fowls.’ This article will explore the history of St Valentine’s Day and what factors affected its modern interpretation, as well its presence in cultures outside the Global North.
Historically, there are many accounts of Christian figures named Valentine, but three accounts in particular are closely related to Valentine’s Day. The first concerns Valentine of Rome, a priest who was against the incredibly open society of the third century where marriage and engagements were banned by Emperor Claudius II, who believed married men were weak warriors because they cared too much about their families and were not willing to sacrifice themselves in battle. This meant relationships out of wedlock were common in Rome, something which the priest Valentine believed was against the Christian faith. Valentine married couples in secret, against the law of the time. Consequently, he was executed on 14 February 269 CE, and from then he was seen as a martyr. The other major account is of Valentino of Terni, a bishop who was also martyred in the third century CE. The account of his life and death is very similar to that of Valentine of Rome, so it is hypothesized that these two figures were in fact the same man. The reason for the stories diverging or merging may be down to their being lost in historical translation over time. There was also a third Valentine who lived in North Africa and was martyred, but there is sparse knowledge of him.
Many priests, even today, take the story of St Valentine as one representing pure faith and dedication up until the point of death. Following Valentine of Rome’s martyrdom, his sacrifice was first commemorated by a feast held on the fourteenth of February in the eighth century, recorded in the Gelasian Sacramentary. It should be added that from 44 BCE to 495 CE, a Roman festival called Lupercalia took place on the fifteenth day of February. The festival is sometimes mentioned in the context of St Valentine’s Day, but it should be noted that there was no relation between this day and Saint Valentine. It would not be until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the day would come to have some association with love.
The first connections between love and St Valentine’s Day in literature can be traced back to Chaucer’s poem ‘Parliament of Fowls.’ This poem is arguably the reason the day was redefined as one centered around romance and courtship, as it explores themes of two people coming together on ‘Valentynes day’. Briefly, Chaucer’s poem explores the theme of love through a dream vision, where the narrator falls asleep, pondering the art of love. The narrator falls asleep only to wake up at the temple of Venus, the goddess who encompasses love, affection, sexuality, and fertility. Then the narrator witnesses a debate between male eagles over who should be the partner for the singular female, before some lesser birds begin to engage in intimacy and love. Finally, the narrator awakes, yet still with no understanding of the nature of love. Chaucer associates ‘Valentynes day’ with love in the poem, taking it to be the first day of birds’ mating season. However, this is a point of contention, as mid-February is too early to be mating season for birds, and a significant idea in the poem is summer bringing these lovers together. So, it is theorized that Chaucer may have intended to relate the poem to a different Valentine’s Day!
Valentine of Genoa was a bishop who died in 307 CE and is commemorated on 3 May. His feast day would correspond with the poem’s theme of summer, and the third of May was also when it was announced that Chaucer’s patron, Richard II, was engaged to Anne of Bohemia; thus, it could be that Chaucer was writing this poem to honour their one-year anniversary. It is likely, though, that Chaucer would have had little knowledge of the date when his patron was engaged, and it is also unknown how he could have come to know of the Genoese Valentine, as the literature behind his Italian connections is far and few between. Despite its origins, after Chaucer marked Valentine’s Day as one of romance, his imitators and successors fixed the date to the fourteenth of February, and from then began the progression of the day as we know it at present.
In the late eighteenth century, Valentine’s Day was rejuvenated in the United Kingdom, stemming from a British publisher issuing ‘The Young Man’s Valentine’s Writer’ in 1797 for men who lacked the ‘romantic ability’ to express their love to their partners and therefore needed it written out for them. This concept quickly spread. Printers produced more elaborate and decorative cards with ribbon and lace, and the market for ‘valentines’ expanded rapidly. Soon enough, the concept had reached American shores, and in 1849 a writer in Graham’s American Monthly proclaimed that Valentine’s Day had become a ‘national holiday’. Within a decade, a forgotten folk tradition had become a yearly market driver for many trade sectors. In the nineteenth century, card printers, chocolatiers, and florists made huge financial gains from this somewhat manufactured holiday, and the trend would follow into the present day. Valentine’s Day has become monopolized in recent times, with many independent trades like florists and card makers slowly declining, especially since supermarkets introduced flower and card sections. Much of the holiday’s charm and intimacy has been lost due to the manipulation of the economy by capitalist market forces.
Valentine’s Day has not been adopted across the globe to the same extent as it has been in the West. Reactions to the holiday in non-Western countries have reflected individual countries’ socioeconomic situations and have been impacted by the existence of historical holidays where the significance and traditions of love are conveyed in different manners. One example is in India, where a 2018 survey showed that 68% of respondents did not wish to be associated with Valentine’s Day. This may be due to the holiday being regarded as a neocolonial celebration which takes advantage of the working class, encouraging them to indulge in a culture built on a commercial identity, and which strays from their own social, religious, and cultural values. Given the huge profits made through monopolizing markets like flowers and cards, some parts of Valentine’s Day have now been lost to capitalism and profiteering. What is also evident is that any interpretation of the modern holiday is a continuation of what was spawned in the UK and US in the nineteenth century and therefore originates from a capitalist manipulation of a forgotten feast day for a forgotten saint.
The history of St Valentine’s Day is still unclear in places and lost in others, relying on strands of history which morphed over time. Today, we see the holiday as a day of showing affection, but behind the roses are capitalistic market forces ushering people to the enlarged supermarkets where stacks of predictable cards lay. It is unlikely that the festivities associated with Valentine’s Day today are what any of the various historical Saint Valentines would have intended to be remembered for. This is not to say we should not be affectionate and loving–we should take every opportunity to show the loved ones in our lives how much they mean to us, and Valentine’s Day should be another day to do so. However, it would be in anyone’s interest to do more than the young men of the late eighteenth century who could not express their love and so had to turn to a valentine writer.
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Featured image credit: Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Rome) Skull of St. Valentini. Photograph by Alfvan Beem. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Maria_in_Cosmedin_(Rome)Skull_of_St._Valentini._Valentini.JPG.