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Cupid or l’Amour mouillé, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) (Photo credit: Wikipaintings)

Valentine’s Day

Greek and Roman Antiquity

Love has long been celebrated. In ancient Greece, the marriage of Jupiter to Hera was commemorated between mid-January and mid-February. As for the Romans, in mid-February, they held the festival of the Lupercalia. According to Britannica, the Lupercalia was

[t]he festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.[i]

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I attempted to replace the Lupercalia with a Christian feast, the “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and a commemoration of the “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple” be celebrated on the 2nd of February. Simeon recognized the Messiah in Jesus. Having seen Jesus, Simeon said that now he could leave: the Nunc Dimittis ued a decree that made the 14th of .February the feast of at least one saint named Valentine. Britannica differs: “Valentine’s Day came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century.”[ii]

Lupercalia was eventually overshadowed by Saint Valentine’s Day, celebrated on the 14th of February. The 14th of February is no longer a feast day in the Catholic Church. But it is a feast day in the Anglican Church. Moreover, Ireland and France have relics of St Valentine, Valentine of Terni in Dublin and an anonymous St Valentine in France.

Saints and Martyrs

There is conflicting information concerning saints named Valentine.  It would be my opinion that the only St Valentine we can associate with Valentine’s Day is the saint who slipped his jailor’s daughter a note worded “From your Valentine.”

In French, Valentine’s Day is still called la Saint-Valentin, which suggests that there is a saint and martyr named Valentin. In fact, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there may be three saints named Valentine:

  1. Valentine of Terni, the bishop of Interrama, now Terni, also a 3rd-century martyr buried on the Via Flaminia,
  2. a Valentine who suffered in Africa with several companions and the
  3. Valentine who restored his jail keeper’s daughter’s sight and slipped her a note that read “From your Valentine,” the night before his martyrdom.
  4. If this Valentine is associated with Valentine’s Day, it is because of the note he slipped to his daughter.  This saint would be Valentine of Rome, our St Valentine

Valentine Day’s Cards: Origin

Valentine of Rome is mentioned, albeit inconspicuously, in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend.  Moreover, the Roman Martyrology, “the Catholic Church‘s official list of recognized saints,” gives only one Saint Valentine, the martyr who was executed and buried on the Via Flaminia and whose feast day is the 14th of February. (Saint Valentine, Wikipedia.)  This saint’s only link with St Valentine’s day is the note he slipped to his jailer’s daughter. This note would be the origin of Valentine’s Day cards.

The Emperor was of the opinion that married men were lesser soldiers…

St Valentine was martyred about c. 270 CE, probably 269, by the Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.[iii]  The Emperor was of the opinion that married men were lesser soldiers. This St Valentine could be Valentine of Rome. But it could also be that this Valentine, Valentine of Rome, is the same person as Valentine of Terni, a priest and bishop also martyred in the 3rd century CE and buried on the Via Flaminia. This view is not supported by the Encyclopædia Britannica.[iv]

However, as I mentioned above, if this saint is associated with Valentine’s Day, the note signed “From your Valentine” is the only link between a saint named Valentine and Valentine’s Day. The note constitutes the required romantic element.

The Romantic Element

The Lady and the Unicorn
Chaucer: the day birds mate 

As mentioned above, Saint Valentine’s Day was not the feast of lovers (i.e. people in love) until a myth was born according to which birds mated on February the 14th. This myth is probably quite ancient but it finds its relatively recent roots is Geoffrey Chaucer‘s (14th century) Parliament of Foules. Othon III de Grandson (1340 and 1350 – 7 August 1397) [in French], a poet and captain at the court of England, spread the legend to the Latin world in the 14th century. This legend is associated with the famous mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) tapestry called La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

N.B. The first version of the Canterbury Tales to be published in print was William Caxton’s 1478 edition. Caxton translated and printed The Golden Legend in 1483.


Birds mating on 14th February
Othon III de Granson
Charles d’Orléans

It would appear that Othon III de Grandson, our poet and captain, wrote a third of his poetry in praise of that tradition. He wrote:

  • La Complainte de Saint Valentin (I & II), or Valentine’s Lament,
  • La Complaincte amoureuse de Sainct Valentin Gransson (The Love Lament of St Valentine Gransson),
  • Le souhait de Saint Valentin (St Valentine’s Wish),
  • and Le Songe Saint Valentin (St Valentine’s Dream). (See Othon III de Grandson [in French], Wikipedia)

Knowledge of these texts was disseminated in courtly circles, the French court in particular, at the beginning of the 15th century, by Charles d’Orléans. At some point, Othon’s Laments were forgotten, but St Valentine’s Day was revived in the 19th century.

In short, St Valentine’s Day is about

  1. a martyr who, the night before his martyrdom, slipped a note to the lady he had befriended, his jailor’s blind daughter, signing it “From your Valentine.”
  2. It is about a legend, found in Chaucer‘s Parliament of Foules, according to which birds mate on the 14th of February.
  3. It is associated with an allegorical tapestry: La Dame à la licorne.
  4. It is about Othon III de Grandson (FR, Wikipedia), a poet and a captain who devoted thirty percent of his poetry to the traditions surrounding St Valentine’s Day.
  5. It is also about courtly love and, specifically, Le Roman de la Rose, part of which was translated into English by Geoffrey Chaucer.
  6. Finally, it is about Charles d’Orléans who circulated the lore about St Valentine in courtly circles in France.

There is considerable information in Wikipedia’s entry of St Valentine’s Day. It was or has become a transcultural tradition. It cannot be celebrated in countries where marriages are arranged.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Folk Art Valentine, 1875


[i] Valentine’s Day.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/858512/Valentines-Day>.

[ii] Saint Valentine.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2013

[iii] “Claudius II Gothicus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2013

[iv] Saint Valentine.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2013


Andreas Scholl sings Dowland‘s “Flow my Tears”

© Micheline Walker
14 February 2013