As a child at Our Lady of Lourdes, the nuns taught us that St. Valentine was a martyr during the early days of the church. The emperor, Claudius the Cruel had forbidden marriages, believing that single men made better soldiers, but Valentinus, a priest, continued to secretly perform marriages. After he was jailed, Valentinus he restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer, who wrote him a letter of thanks that became the first Valentine.
It was a great story, but a complete crock of doo doo.
To begin, there were three different martyrs name Valentinus in the early days of the church. We know little about any of them, and they had nothing to do with the exchange of love letters.
So how and when did this expensive annual habit actually begin? Blame Chaucer. He wrote a poem in 1382 to honor the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement. In the poem he mentions that birds mated on St. Valentine’s feast day which was February 14. Did Chaucer make this up? We can’t tell for certain.
In fourteenth century in France, during the age of courtly love, this caught on like wild fire. Three other notable authors (Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and Pardo from Valencia) made similar references and it took off faster than Fifty Shades of Gray. Letters and confections became the rage on this day. Wooers gave a charm in the shape of a key as a romantic symbol and an invitation to unlock the giver’s heart. Such charms were also given to children to ward off St Valentine’s Malady. He’s the patron saint of epilepsy. (He is also the patron of beekeepers (along with St. Ambrose) although I’m not sure if that is connected.)
The connection between love letters and February 14th continued in France and England through to the present. In Hamlet you’ll find a mention of the feast so it was familiar to Shakespeare and his audience in Elizabethan England. With the creation of a postal system and the printing of mass produced cards in the 1840’s in the United States, the day became part of our modern celebrations.
Alas, February 14th is no longer the feast day of St. Valentine. In 1969 the Catholic Church revised its Calendar of Saints. Saints Cyril and Methodius now claim that day.
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