Who is the True Valentine?
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.
Archeological digs in the 1500s and 1800s did in fact fine evidence of a tomb of St. Valentine. And in the 12th century, noted historian William Somerset referred to the Flamenian Gate as “the Gate of St. Valentine.”
Pope Gelasius I designated February 14th as the feast day (day of martyrdom) of Saint Valentine, most likely because this was the date one of those first two martyrs was buried on the Via Flamenia. But since some historical details were lacking, the Pope in his declaration 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.”
Over the years, Saint Valentine of Rome (the priest) appears to have emerged as the most likely candidate for the Valentine we associate with our holiday traditions.
Many of the Saint Valentine stories and traditions are preserved in two works you might want to explore: the Middle Ages best-seller, The Golden Legend, and the earlier Life of Saints Marius and Martha (with whom Valentine was martyred).
Why is Saint Valentine Associated with Romance?
It’s unsure exactly why Saint Valentine’s feast day became associated with love and courtship, but there are two theories.
Firstly, although there is mention of romantic love in the early medieval biographies of the Roman priest and bishop, there are legends (based on some historical truths, but not actually verified) 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.
The second theory goes that in the Medieval Age, it was a common belief in England France that birds began to pair on February 14th, or halfway through the second month of the year. Geoffrey Chaucer penned this verse in 1482 for the King’s engagement. It reads “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Even earlier, 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!
Saint Valentine is not only busy being the patron of lovers and happy marriages; he is also traditionally invoked by beekeepers and against epilepsy and plague. And February 14th isn’t just his day; there are actually thirty other saints whose virtuous lives are celebrated by the Church on the 14th.
Whatever the origins are, 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?