Who is St. Valentine?
St. Valentine of Rome, a martyr, was a priest or possibly a bishop in 3rd century Rome. Some sources list St. Valentine of Rome and St. Valentine of Terni as separate men, but most scholars believe them to have been the same person. Little is known about the history of St. Valentine, but he is believed to have been a physician, imprisoned for giving aid to jailed martyrs. However, as with many of the early martyrs, little is known aside from his name, Valentinus; that he was killed for the Faith; and that he was buried at the Via Flaminia north of Rome. He was beaten and beheaded around the year 269 A.D. Valentine’s name and feast on the 14th of February was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who named Valentine among those “... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
There are several legends about St. Valentine, but as Pope Gelasius I indicated, his actual acts cannot be known. The most well-known legend of the saint’s life is also sometimes cited as the basis for the later card-sending tradition.
According to legend, Valentine, along with St. Marius, aided the Christian martyrs during the Claudian persecution. In addition to his other edicts against helping Christians, Claudius had also issued a decree forbidding marriage. Valentine, a priest or a bishop, defied this decree and he urged young lovers to come to him in secret so that he could join them in the sacrament of matrimony. When Valentine was discovered, he was arrested, but the emperor first attempted to convert Valentine to Roman paganism rather than execute him.
Of course, Valentine remained steadfast in his faith, and even tried to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity, and so the emperor then condemned him to death. In the time before Valentine was executed, he was tended by the jailer, Asterius, and his blind daughter, who was very kind to Valentine and brought him food and messages. The legend states that Valentine became friends with and converted both Asterius and his daughter, and miraculously restored the girl's sight.
The History of Saint Valentine's Day
The romantic nature of February 14 seems to have been attached to the date long after it was recognized as the feast day of St. Valentine. Still, several centuries before pre-printed, mass-produced greeting cards existed, men and women sent notes, tokens, and cards to their loves on St. Valentine’s Day. The tradition certainly was in place by the late 15th century, with French and English literature indicating the practice dated at least to the 14th century. However it is less certain exactly how St. Valentine’s Day came to be recognized as the romantic holiday it is today. There are multiple ideas on how the custom evolved.
The legend that describes St. Valentine’s imprisonment mentions a letter he sent to the Jailer Asterius’s daughter on the eve before he was executed. According to the legend, the farewell message was affectionately signed “From Your Valentine,” a phrase now popular on Valentine greeting cards everywhere.
One aspect is referenced in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was a popular belief in the middle ages that birds would choose their mates mid-way through the second month of the year – the 14th of February – and that day was seen as consecrated to lovers. In Chaucer’s 14th century poem Parliament of Fowls is the line “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This is often recognized as the earliest known written reference to the sending of notes to a loved one on St. Valentine’s Day.
Some years later, the reference to Valentine’s Day and birds was mentioned again in one of the Paston Letters (a collection of letters and other papers exchanged among members of the gentry Paston family and their acquaintances between 1422 and 1509):
“And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine's Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.”
Since the 18th century some historians, noting the obscurity of the holiday, believe that the current Valentine’s Day traditions (exchanging notes and trinkets) were adapted from older Roman pagan traditions. However this view is not held universally, as the note-sending tradition is not cited earlier than the 14th century.