February is the month of love and couples all over the world will be celebrating St. Valentine's Day. But where does the tradition come from, who was Valentine and what do we know about him?
You know how I love a bit of history so I decided to do a bit of research and see what I could find out.
February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, although very much commercialised now, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred:
A priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, who realised the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Valentine of Terni, a bishop. He, too, was beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome.
An imprisoned Valentine who many believe actually sent the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl — possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death it's alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, an expression that is still in use today.
Valentine's true identity was questioned as early as AD 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who referred to the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God”.
Some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial — which probably occurred around AD 270. Others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianise” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed — as it was deemed “un-Christian” — at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love.
During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Some say that the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer may have invented Valentine’s Day. Chaucer often took liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day – an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,” he may have invented the holiday we know today.
In all, there are about a dozen St. Valentines, plus a pope. The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list. Because “Valentinus” — from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful — was a popular moniker between the second and eighth centuries AD several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name. The official Roman Catholic roster of saints shows about a dozen who were named Valentine or some variation thereof. The most recently beatified Valentine is St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Spaniard of the Dominican order who travelled to Vietnam, where he served as bishop until his beheading in 1861. Pope John Paul II canonized Berrio-Ochoa in 1988. There was even a Pope Valentine, though little is known about him except that he served a mere 40 days around A.D. 827.
...and the Bees
Did you know that Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy, among many other things. Saints are certainly expected to keep busy in the afterlife. Their holy duties include interceding in earthly affairs and entertaining petitions from living souls. In this respect, St. Valentine has wide-ranging spiritual responsibilities. People call on him to watch over the lives of lovers, of course, but also for interventions regarding beekeeping and epilepsy, as well as the plague, fainting and travelling. As you might expect, he’s also the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages.
You can find Valentine’s skull in Rome. The flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In the early 1800s, the excavation of a catacomb near Rome yielded skeletal remains and other relics now associated with St. Valentine. As is customary, these bits and pieces of the late saint’s body have subsequently been distributed to reliquaries around the world. You’ll find other bits of St. Valentine’s skeleton on display in the Czech Republic, England, France, Ireland and Scotland.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century.
By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colourful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year after Christmas.
In the Victorian era and into the 20th century, lovers exchanged elaborate lace-trimmed cards on Valentine's Day expressing their undying love and devotion with sentiments and poems. For those not on good terms, or who wanted to fend off an enemy or unwanted suitor, “vinegar valentines” offered a stinging alternative.
“To My Valentine / ‘Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now ‘skidoo,’ Because I love another — there is no chance for you,” reads one card. Another depicts a woman dousing an unsuspecting man with a bucket of water. “Here’s a cool reception,” it warns, telling the “old fellow” that he “best stop away.”
Although Valentine’s Day can be traced to ancient Rome it’s the Victorians who originally put a romantic spin on the holiday. Valentine’s Day became so popular that postal carriers received special meal allowances to keep themselves running during the frenzy leading up February 14th. Of the millions of cards sent, some estimate that nearly half were of the vinegar variety.
Before they were dubbed vinegar valentines, these cards were known as mocking or comic valentines. Their tone ranged from a gentle jab to downright aggressiveness. There was an insulting card for just about every person someone might dislike — from annoying salespeople and landlords to overbearing employers and adversaries of all kinds. Cards could be sent to liars and cheats and flirts and alcoholics, while some cards mocked specific professions. Their grotesque drawings caricatured common stereotypes and insulted a recipient’s physical attributes, lack of a marriage partner or character traits.
Suffragettes became targets as the women's suffrage movement gained momentum. The cards often pointed out moral failings. Perhaps it was hoped in some cases that they would prompt a change in behaviour, but in many cases their aim was simply to chide or even to wound.
Two early valentines-makers pioneered the manufacture and distribution of cards in Britain and the United States — Jonathan King of London and Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. King pioneered decorative lace, paper and unusual design using bits of tinsel, feathers and flowers as accents. Howland, inspired by English lace valentines, began making elaborate valentines which sold for as much as $50 each in the 1850s. By the mid-19th century, both Britain and the United States had large-scale valentine production systems in place. Insulting valentines expanded upon traditional valentines and offered manufacturers an additional source of revenue. Vinegar cards could be cheaply made by printing them on a single paper, folding and sealing them with a bit of wax.
Valentines by Post
While the U.S. tradition of exchanging valentines didn’t ramp up until after the Civil War, across the pond in the UK the valentine craze began in earnest around the same time as postal reform. Britain’s Uniform Penny Post, which allowed anyone in England to send something in the mail for just one penny, went into effect on January 10, 1840. One year later, the public sent nearly a half million valentines. In 1871, London’s post office processed 1.2 million cards. The number might have been higher, but postmasters sometimes confiscated vinegar valentines, deeming them too vulgar for delivery.
Postal workers were not the only ones rattled by the nastiness of vinegar cards. There are contemporary accounts from memoirs and newspapers that show fist fights and court cases, suicide and attempted murder resulted. The Pall Mall Gazette of London published a story in 1885 about a husband who shot his estranged wife after she sent him a vinegar valentine.
Less is known about insulting valentines than sentimental ones, in part because very few have survived. There are autobiographical accounts that show recipients tore them up and burned them from shame and most surviving examples are unsent cards found in the collections of printers and stationers.
Because they were mailed anonymously, most senders of vinegar valentines faced few repercussions. Adding insult to injury, senders didn’t even foot the cost of postage. Not only did vinegar valentines contain downright slanderous statements, but they were also sent COD (cash on delivery) and cost the recipient one penny to read. As a result of some of the extreme reactions and regular letters of complaint in the press, the cards began to fall out of favour. Some blamed the card manufacturers for crass profit-seeking and others blamed the tastes of the newly-literate public who could afford these cheap items.
Whether commercialisation or class was the cause of their spread, impassioned pleas to clean up the holiday became more widespread in the later-19th century and today very few Valentine’s Day cards convey such a mean spirit. But perhaps a modern-day equivalent for cruel and anonymous jibes would be the social media troll.