You probably already know that Valentine’s Day is named for a real person. But you might be surprised to learn that there were actually three different Valentines mentioned in early Christian martyrologies. Saint Valentine of Rome was a priest and Saint Valentine of Terni a bishop; both were put to death for their faith during the Roman persecutions of the 3rd century and both are buried on the famous Via Flamenia, an ancient Roman road. Even less is known about the third Saint Valentine except that he was martyred in Africa with several companions.
Every officially canonized saint has a a feast day – that is, the day they died and were welcomed into Heaven.
Pope Gelasius I designated February 14th as the feast day of Saint Valentine, most likely because this was the date one of the martyrs was buried on the Via Flamenia. But since some historical details were lacking, the Pope referred to the three “Valentines” collectively when he called them men “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
But how did Saint Valentine’s Day become associated with love and courtship? There is no mention of romance in early medieval biographies of the Roman priest and bishop. But there are traditional (based on some historical truths, but not actually verified) legends which recount that Saint Valentine celebrated marriages in secret in defiance of the pagan Roman emperor. For this he was thrown in prison, and after his death was remembered as the special patron of those in love.
We see romantic elements beginning to creep in around the 1400’s. In 1482, the famous Geoffrey Chaucer penned a romantic verse to honor the King’s engagement. It reads “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” And on Valentine’s Day in 1400, a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence towards women. The earliest surviving paper Valentine dates to the 15th century from the Duke of Orleans.
Since those days of courtly love and romance, Valentine’s Day has broadened its horizons even more. In my family we’ve always given Valentines to all those we love – not just our sweethearts and spouses. And our expressions of love aren’t always sappy and sweet; some of the best are pretty darn funny!
And I think the three Saint Valentines would have approved of setting aside one day in the year to remember how important love is. After all, in the words of St. Paul: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
What are some of your family’s Valentine traditions?