Friday, February 14, 2014

St. Valentine's romantic connections... or not...

The skull of St. Valentine, Basilica of St. Maria Cosmedin in Rome.

Poor St. Valentine... He never asked for it. 

He never asked that his name come to be associated with cheap candy and heart-shaped mylar balloons. 

It's even probably safe to assume that he would have never guessed--not in a million years--that he would become synonymous with romantic crushes, red foil heart decorations and free hug coupons. 

What a horrid fate.

Who was St. Valentine, anyway?

St. Valentine of Terni -- different guy from
St. Valentine of Rome, but shares both
the same name and the same feast day
as his better-known predecessor.
All that we know for sure about the man named Valentinus (i.e. Valentine) is that he was buried along the Via Flaminia (an ancient Roman road which led from the city to the Adriatic Sea) on February 14th. 

We're not even positive about the year, but it was likely during the third century. 

His tomb became a center of devotional activities for early Christians in Rome, so it seems likely that he was remembered for being martyred for the faith. But his name does not appear in the earliest known Roman martyrology (the list of Christian martyrs from in and around the city of Rome) which was published in 354.

In the year 496, Valentine was added by Pope Gelasius I to the calendar of saints. In place of a detailed acta (a record of his life and death), Pope Gelasius simply  remarked that Valentine was to be commemorated as one of the many saints "...whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." 

According to pious tradition, there were actually two men who are both celebrated as early Christian martyrs on the date of February 14th: a priest from Rome and a bishop from the Italian city of Terni. Both bore the same name: Valentinus, which means "conquerer." The two Sts. Valentine lived about about 50 years apart and about 50 miles apart, but both died as martyrs for the Faith during the third century. Each was buried after his martyrdom in a grave along the Via Flaminia, but at different distances from the city of Rome. But it is the former--the priest from Rome--, who has come to be known as "St. Valentine of Rome," and it is he that is usually considered to be the St. Valentine.

"But wait... there's more!"

Throughout the years, at least seven known saints have also shared the name Valentine, though they have different feast days. But the martyred priest from the city of Rome who is commemorated today continues to be remembered most widely. 

St. Valentine of Rome is still found on the Catholic Church's official list of saints. His entry in the Roman martyrology for February 14 reads: "At Rome, on the Flaminian Way, the heavenly birthday of the blessed martyr Valentine, a priest. After performing many miraculous cures and giving much wise counsel he was beaten and beheaded under Claudius Caesar." 

But because so little is known about him, St. Valentine's feast day was one of the ones removed from the Catholic Church's General Calendar in 1969. Some local calendars (those of dioceses, etc.), still commemorate St. Valentine's feast day on February 14th and there are many churches dedicated to him throughout the world. One church in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, even displays what is believed to be the skull of St. Valentine of Rome.

And what does any of that have to do with romantic love?

This day is one of the more obvious examples of the Catholic origins of what has become a popular celebration in the secular culture. So what about the romantic part? How does that fit in? How did the name of a Christian martyr (or two Christian martyrs) become entangled with notions of romantic love and fidelity (at best) or a raunchy money-making holiday (at worst)? Well, it seems we owe this to two things: the fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and a case of mistaken identity.

In 1382, Chaucer published a poem honoring the first anniversary of the engagement of England's King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. From history, we know that an agreement for the engagement was signed on May 2, 1381. Chaucer's poem, entitled Parlement of Foules, commemorates the date of the king's engagement in the following line:

"For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make"

Or, in modern English:

"For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate." 

In time, because of Chauser's popularity, the notion seeped into the popular mindset and into other forms of popular culture throughout western Europe that St. Valentine's Day was connected with romantic love and marriage engagements. 

In 19th century England, "valentines" began to be exchanged on a larger scale. And the engines of capitalism and consumerism powered a virtual revolution in the celebration of St. Valentine's Day in the 20th century as valentines (and candy, and flowers, and gifts, and...) came to be the norm rather than the exception.

Throughout the years, legends sprung up and were attached to St. Valentine's already largely-invented hagiography. One story, which was widely disseminated after it showed up in the popular Butler's Book of Saints (1894) even had the soon-to-be martyred Valentine sending a letter from his jail cell just before his death, signed "Your Valentine." Get it? The "first valentine." How cute.

Throughout all of those years, it was assumed by Chaucer's readers that February 14th was the day he was referring to. According to this widely popular misunderstanding, then, the 14th of February (St. Valentine's Day) was understood to be the day on which birds mated and, therefore, a good day to celebrate romantic love. Over the centuries, other poets and authors also echoed the supposedly "ancient tradition" of St. Valentine's Day in the middle of February being a day especially suited for romantic pursuits. 

The root of the problem: a fourteenth century misunderstanding

But all of the attempts at connecting love and courtship to a saint whose feast day is on February 14th is based on a misunderstanding of Chaucer's words. 

Yep. This was all a really big mistake.

Chaucer was not referring to February 14th in his poem. The date of the king's engagement which Chaucer wrote about was not in February, it was on May 2nd. And May 2nd just happens to be the feast day of another (even more obscure) saint named Valentine--a fourth century bishop of Genoa and a wholly different person from either of the Sts. Valentine that are commemorated as martyrs on February 14th!

Of course it makes more sense, too, that Chaucer was talking about May and not February. Birds aren't very likely to be mating in the middle of February, but they are likely to mate at the beginning of May. 


So enjoy your made-up "romantic" day!

Soooo..... Valentine's Day, as far as being a "romantic" holiday, really is every bit as invented as you might have suspected. 

Of course it is a great thing to show your significant other that you love them. Hopefully, your love and devotion is apparent to your loved one every day of the year. And while it might be nice to have an excuse (even a made-up one) to celebrate romantic love, it's probably not the best development that this day has come to symbolize the tawdry along with the holy and to equate passing crushes with long-standing exclusive relationships. But it is what it is.

But if, by chance, you completely forgot to get your favorite somebody flowers or a card today, you can now convincingly argue that this whole day is based on a big old misunderstanding and that you've got everything planned for the real St. Valentine's Day (the one Chaucer actually intended)... on May 2nd.

Yeah.... Good luck with that.

(Reposted w/edits from 2/14/2011)