Who was Saint Valentine?
Valentine’s Day is upon us, and you know what that means: flowers and chocolate for some, memes about being lonely for others. Not everyone has a positive view of the holiday, believing it to be too commercialized and detached from its original meaning to have much in the way of real-world significance, but there’s no doubt that the greeting-card companies enjoy it. That said, even the hopeless romantics among us probably don’t know the answer to one important question: Who exactly was St. Valentine?
Born in Terni, Italy, in A.D. 226, the third-century saint is known as Valentinus in Latin and San Valentino in Italian. He’s revered for ministering to faithful Christians at a time when they were violently persecuted by the Roman Empire — so much so, in fact, that Valentine himself was martyred for his efforts.
Given that this was the third century, details are somewhat scarce. The most common hagiography of Saint Valentine claims he was either a priest in Rome or the one-time bishop of his native Terni, with his evangelizing ultimately leading to him being placed under house arrest by one Judge Asterius. The judge, whose adopted daughter was blind, challenged Valentine to restore the girl’s sight, saying he would do whatever the man of faith asked of him if he was successful. Valentine was, and told the judge to break all of his idols, fast for three days, and get baptized. He did all that and went even further by freeing other Christian prisoners.
Valentine’s troubles didn’t end there, however. Spreading the good word ultimately got him sent to the emperor at the time: Claudius Gothicus, also known as Claudius II. The emperor became fond of Valentinus — that is, until he tried to convert him. Claudius didn’t take kindly to this, and ordered the man of the cloth to renounce his faith on pain of death.
Valentine refused. As a result, he was executed outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269.
Where’s the romance?
That all this led to him being associated with love and romance is indeed a bit strange. One apocryphal account states that he signed a letter to Judge Asterius’ daughter “from your Valentine” shortly before his death, but its accuracy is disputed; another claims that he married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. What we now call Valentine’s Day was preceded by the Feast of Saint Valentine, which Pope Gelasius I established in 496, and it appears we have Chaucer’s 1382 poem “Parlement of Foules” to thank for the saint’s current connotation.
In it, he wrote “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make,” which in modern English is translated as “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Other poems followed in the centuries to come, and Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine’s Day by name in “Hamlet.”
From there, it became received wisdom that Valentine = romance. The seasonal love letters now known as valentines have been sent in America since the mid-1800s, and today it’s estimated that 144 million cards are exchanged on Valentine’s Day. If you plan to send one this year, spare a thought for the holiday’s namesake.