Jacopo Bassano, St Valentine Baptizing St Lucilla, 1575, oil on canvas, Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa
The popular customs associated with Saint Valentineâ€™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 Chaucerâ€™s Parliament of Foules we read:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyneâ€™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 loversâ€™ 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 Valentineâ€™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.
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869: Feast Day: St. Valentine, priest and martyr, circ. 270.
ST. VALENTINEâ€™S DAY
Valentineâ€™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-sellersâ€™ 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 Hymenâ€™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. Valentineâ€™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. Valentineâ€™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.
â€˜On the eve of St. Valentineâ€™s Day,â€™ he says, â€˜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 menâ€™s billets, and the men the maidsâ€™: 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.â€™
St. Valentineâ€™s Day is alluded to by Shakespeare and by Chaucer, and also by the poet Lydgate (who died in 1440).
The origin of these peculiar observances of St. Valentineâ€™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 Shakespeare, 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. Valentineâ€™s Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.”
February 14th, prior to 1969, was the feast day of two, or possibly three, saints and martyrs named Valentine, all reputedly of the Third Century.
The first Valentine, legend holds, was a physician and priest in Rome, arrested for giving aid to martyrs in prison, who while there converted his jailer by restoring sight to the jailerâ€™s daughter. He was executed by being beaten with clubs, and afterwards beheaded, February 14, 270. He is traditionally the patron of affianced couples, bee keepers, lovers, travellers, young people, and greeting card manufacturers, and his special assistance may be sought in conection with epilepsy, fainting, and plague.
A second St. Valentine, reportedly bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) was also allegedly martyred under Claudius II, and also allegedly buried along the Flaminian Way.
A third St. Valentine is said to have also been martyred in Roman times, along with companions, in Africa.
Because of a lack of historical evidence, the Roman Catholic Church dropped the February 14th feast of St. Valentine from its calendar in 1969.