We think Valentine’s Day is a relatively modern concept, full of red roses, overbooked restaurants and a wee bit of romance.
But what if I told you it was older than that - that it started back in Roman times? Where it had nothing to do with love but started with the execution of two men named Valentine.
The Bloody Romans
We start with a bloody story, and take you back to the 3rd Century AD when the 14th February became the day of Saint Valentine.
Enter the Catholic Church who made the men martyrs, in defiance of the Emperor and Roman religion. Specifically one of our two Valentines was made a saint - yep, he’s the Saint Valentine of Saint Valentine’s Day. He probably earned his saintly
stature as much for politics as anything, but the official Church line was he cured the blindness of his jailor's daughter. Oh, and his final act was to write her a love message signed ‘from your Valentine'. Sound familiar?
As a result, from the 3rd Century AD the Catholic Church was celebrating the feast of Saint Valentine on the 14th February. However, there really wasn’t much romance in the story.
Enter a Confused Pope
For 200-odd years things ticked along as per normal, where Saint Valentine’s day commemorated a martyr saint until late in the 5th Century AD when Pope Gelasius I got a little muddled and confused Saint Valentine’s Day, with the traditional Roman festival, Lupercalia and he combined the two.
Back to Those Crazy Romans
In Roman times, Luperccalia was a festival from 13-15 February where Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says ‘the Roman romantics were drunk. They were naked.’ The festival was heavily embedded in rights of fertility and matchmaking, albeit in what sounds very confusing to our modern ears, For example the festival of Luperccalia started when the men sacrificed a goat, then a dog and the women lined up to be whipped with the hides of these animals, because the Romans believed this would make them fertile. Fun times!
Also critical to the debauchery of Luperccalia was two days of matchmaking, where young men drew the name of a woman from a jar and the couple would be ‘matched’ for the duration of the festival — or if the couple got lucky and the love match was right, it may have been permanent.
When Pop Gelasius I got muddled and merged the two, he left the debauchery of Luperccalia behind, some say the Catholic Church ‘put clothes back on Luperccalia’, but they did merge the concepts of love and fertility with Saint Valentine’s Day.
To add to the confusion, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day around the same time, which meant ‘lover of women’ and this was likely confused with Saint Valentine’s Day.
Then there’s Shakespeare
The next big shift we see in the popularisation of Valentine’s Day is thanks to Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Both wrote about Saint Valentine’s day from a whimsical, romantic perspective. And particularly in the time of Shakespeare we must remember English society had largely moved away from the Catholic Church to the Protestant religion, and the importance of Saint Valentine as a martyr saint had lost its impact.
During the Middle Ages we start to see the rituals around our Valentine’s Day emerge, as people would exchange hand-made cards, possibly signed ‘from your Valentine’ in a romantic gesture, and one of courtly love.
Finally, the Victorians get their hands on it
By time we get to Victorian Britain, the idea of romantic love is held high in esteem and therefore the romance around Valentine’s Day really took off, whether as a potential lover (in the purest sense of the word) or for friendship. This was also the time of industrialiastion, which meant for the first time cards were produced at a commercial level and became cheaper and easier to exchange.
It is also during this time when we see technology progress, and access to commodities such as cocoa and sugar become cheaper. This meant that chocolate, something once only the rich could afford, became affordable as a special gift. In fact, Cadbury helped to sure up the romantic myths around Valentine’s Day by producing gift boxes of chocolate in the shape of hearts and cupids, something so special the box was kept as a keepsake long after the chocolates were eaten.
Of course, there’s been mass commercialisation of Valentine’s Day and sometimes it is easy to feel cynical about celebrating it - but this year, remember there is much more to Valentine’s Day than that (including spare a thought for our two Roman martyrs named Valentine). And if nothing else, as someone once wrote in a card for me ‘if Valentine’s Day is the day to say I love you, let it be Valentine’s Day every day of the year’. What a beautiful concept.