The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e., half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (we modernize the spelling), addressing the favoured suitor:
And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
Shortly after the young lady herself wrote a letter to the same man addressing it “Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”. The custom of choosing and sending valentines has of late years fallen into comparative desuetude.
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:Feast Day: St. Valentine, priest and martyr, circ. 270.
ST. VALENTINE’S DAY
Valentine’s Day is now almost everywhere a much degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting merely of the sending of jocular anonymous letters to parties whom one wishes to quiz, and this confined very much to the humbler classes. The approach of the day is now heralded by the appearance in the print-sellers’ shop windows of vast numbers of missives calculated for use on this occasion, each generally consisting of a single sheet of post paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below. More rarely, the print is of a sentimental kind, such as a view of Hymen’s altar, with a pair undergoing initiation into wedded happiness before it, while Cupid flutters above, and hearts transfixed with his darts decorate the corners. Maid-servants and young fellows interchange such epistles with each other on the 14th of February, no doubt conceiving that the joke is amazingly good: and, generally, the newspapers do not fail to record that the London postmen delivered so many hundred thousand more letters on that day than they do in general. Such is nearly the whole extent of the observances now peculiar to St. Valentine’s Day.
At no remote period it was very different. Ridiculous letters were unknown: and, if letters of any kind were sent, they contained only a courteous profession of attachment from some young man to some young maiden, honeyed with a few compliments to her various perfections, and expressive of a hope that his love might meet with return. But the true proper ceremony of St. Valentine’s Day was the drawing of a kind of lottery, followed by ceremonies not much unlike what is generally called the game of forfeits. Misson, a learned traveller, of the early part of the last century, gives apparently a correct account of the principal ceremonial of the day.
‘On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day,’ he says, ‘the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors get together: each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up, and draw by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’: so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man whom she calls hers. By this means each has two valentines: but the man sticks faster to the valentine that has fallen to him than to the valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.’
In that curious record of domestic life in England in the reign of Charles II, Pepys’s Diary, we find some notable illustrations of this old custom. It appears that married and single were then alike liable to be chosen as a valentine, and that a present was invariably and necessarily given to the choosing party. Mr. Pepys enters in his diary, on Valentine’s Day, 1667: ‘This morning came up to my wife’s bedside (I being up dressing myself) little Will Mercer to be her valentine, and brought her name written upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s valentine, and it will cost me Â£5: but that I must have laid out if we had not been valentines.’ Two days after, he adds:
‘I find that Mrs. Pierce’s little girl is my valentine, she having drawn me: which I was not sorry for, it easing me of something more that I must have given to others. But here I do first observe the fashion of drawing mottoes as well as names, so that Pierce, who drew my wife, did draw also a motto, and this girl drew another for me. What mine was, I forget: but my wife’s was “Most courteous and most fair,” which, as it maybe used, or an anagram upon each name, might be very pretty.’
Noticing, soon afterwards, the jewels of the celebrated Miss Stuart, who became Duchess of Richmond, he says: ‘The Duke of York, being once her valentine, did give her a jewel of about Â£800: and my Lord Mandeville, her valentine this year, a ring of about Â£300.’ These presents were undoubtedly given in order to relieve the obligation under which the being drawn as valentines had placed the donors. In February 1668, Pepys notes as follows:
‘This evening my wife did with great pleasure shew me her stock of jewels, increased by the ring she hath made lately, as my valentine’s gift this year, a Turkey-stone set with diamonds. With this, and what she had, she reckons that she hath above one hundred and fifty pounds’ worth of jewels of one kind or other: and I am glad of it, for it is fit the wretch should have something to content herself with.’
The reader will understand wretch to be used as a term of endearment. Notwithstanding the practice of relieving, there seems to have been a disposition to believe that the person drawn as a valentine had some considerable likelihood of becoming the associate of the party in wedlock. At least, we may suppose that this idea would be gladly and easily arrived at, where the party so drawn was at all eligible from other considerations. There was, it appears, a prevalent notion amongst the common people, that this was the day on which the birds selected their mates. They seem to have imagined that an influence was inherent in the day, which rendered in some degree binding the lot or chance by which any youth or maid was now led to fix his attention on a person of the opposite sex. It was supposed, for instance, that the first unmarried person of the other sex whom one met on St. Valentine’s morning in walking abroad, was a destined wife or a destined husband. Thus Gay makes a rural dame remark:
‘Last Valentine, the day when binds of kind
Their paramours with mutual chirping’, find,
I early rose just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chased the stars away:
A-field I went, amid the morning clew,
To milk my kine (for so should housewives do).
Thee first I spiedâ€”and the first swain we see,
In spite of Fortune shall our true love be.’
A forward Miss in the Connoisseur, a series of essays published in 1751-6, thus adverts to other notions with respect to the day:
‘Last Friday was Valentine’s Day, and the night before, I got five bay-leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle: and then, if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it with salt: and when I went to bed, ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote our lovers’ names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our valentine. Would you think it?â€”Mr. Blossom was my man. I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house: for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.’
St. Valentine’s Day is alluded to by Shakspeare and by Chaucer, and also by the poet Lydgate (who died in 1440). One of the earliest known writers of valentines, or poetical amorous addresses for this day, was Charles Duke of Orleans, who was taken at the battle of Agincourt. Drayton, a poet of Shakspeare’s time, full of great but almost unknown beauties, wrote thus charmingly:
TO HIS VALENTINE
‘Muse, bid the morn awake,
Sad winter now declines,
Each bird cloth choose a mate,
This day’s St. Valentine’s :
For that good bishop’s sake
Get up, and let us see,
What beauty it shall be
That fortune us assigns.
But lo! in happy hour,
The place wherein she lies,
In yonder climbing tower
Gilt by the glittering rise;
Oh, Jove! that in a shower,
As once that thunder did,
When he in drops lay hid,
That I could her surprise!
Her canopy I’ll draw,
With spangled plumes bedight,
No mortal ever saw
So ravishing a sight:
That it the gods might awe,
And powerfully transpierce
The globy universe,
Out-shooting every light.
My lips I’ll softly lay
Upon her heavenly cheek,
Dyed like the dawning day,
As polish’d ivory sleek:
And in her ear I’ll say,
“Oh thou bright morning-star
‘Tis I that come so far,
My valentine to seek.”
Each little bird, this title,
Doth choose her loved peer,
Which constantly abide
In wedlock all the year,
As nature is their guide:
So may we two be true
This year, nor change for new,
As turtles coupled were.
Let’s laugh at them that choose
Their valentines by lot:
To wear their names that use,
Whom icily they have got.
Such poor choice we refuse,
Saint Valentine befriend;
We thus this morn may spend,
Else, Muse, awake her not’
Donne, another poet of the same age, remarkable for rich though scattered beauties, writes an epithalamium on the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to Frederick Count Palatine of the Rhineâ€”the marriage which gave the present royal family to the throne–and which took place on St. Valentine’s Day, 1614. The opening is fine
‘Hail, Bishop Valentine! whose day this is:
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners:
Thou marryest every year
The lyric lark and the grave whispering dove:
The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher:
Thou mak’st the blackbird speed as soon
As cloth the goldfinch or the halcyon–
This day more cheerfully than ever shine,
This day which might inflame thyself, old Valentine!’
The origin of these peculiar observances of St. Valentine’s Day is a subject of some obscurity. The saint himself, who was a priest of Rome, martyred in the third century, seems to have had nothing to do with the matter, beyond the accident of his day being used for the purpose. Mr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakspeare, says:
‘It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno. whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis, and Februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who, by every possible means, endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women: and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine’s Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.
This is, in part, the opinion of a learned and rational compiler of the Lives of the Saints, the Rev. Alban Butler.
It should seem, however, that it was utterly impossible to extirpate altogether any ceremony to which the common people had been much accustomedâ€”a fact which it were easy to prove in tracing the origin of various other popular superstitions. And, accordingly, the outline of the ancient ceremonies was preserved, but modified by some adaptation to the Christian system. It is reasonable to suppose, that the above practice of choosing mates would gradually become reciprocal in the sexes, and that all persons so chosen would be called Valentines, from the day on which the ceremony took place.’