I could write the Most Truthful History of Valentine’s Day Ever Written:
At some point in history there was a guy named Valentine
Because from there, the story gets murky!
The feast of Saint Valentine (from which Valentine’s Day gets its name) was established in AD 500 by Pope Gelasius I. It is not exactly certain who the day was named after, as the Catholic Church readily admits there were actually two Christian martyrs named Valentine, and possibly a third in Africa, and he is not included in most scholarly discussions because nobody knows a single thing about him except that he died somehow.
The other two were a bit more notorious, however. The first was Valentine of Rome, who was a priest long before it was in vogue to do so. He was martyred in AD 269 and was buried on February 14th on the Via Flaminia. The second was Valentine of Terni, who was the bishop of Intermagna. He was martyred in AD 197 during the persecution of Emperor Aurelius, and was buried on February 14th on the Via Flaminia. So notorious were these two rogues—so wildly famous were they for their brave acts of Christian charity—that this is all we know about them. As a result, the Catholic Church removed the feast of Saint Valentine from the Roman Catholic Calender of Saints in 1969, claiming, “Apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14."
(Note: The feast of Saint Anthony, which is shared by Anthony of Milan, Anthony of Pisa, Anthony of Rome, Anthony of Florence, Anthony of Venice, Anthony of Tusa, Anthony of Genoa, Anthony the cousin of Anthony of Milan, Anthony who-walks-like-a-this, and Anthony of Brooklyn, suffered the same fate. “Nothing is known of Saint Anthony,” said Father Anthony, a presiding member of the revision council, “except that his name seems to have been a popular one in Rome at the turn of the second century.”)
The origins of the association of Valentine’s Day with romance are equally as vague. The first mention of it came in 1382, when Chaucer composed a poem titled “The Parlement of Foules” to honor the one year anniversary of the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.
For this was on Seynt Volantynys day
When euery bryd comyth to chese his meke
Unbeknownst to many, this was actually a more recent discovery; not because “Parlement” had been lost amidst the annals of history, but because no one could figure out what Chaucer was spelling.
For this reason, many historians attribute the association to a piece of medieval literature titled Legenda Aurea (1260), which contained a number of hagiographies, or writings on the lives of saints. In it, Saint Valentine is persecuted by Roman Emperor Claudius II, who became impressed by Valentine and attempts to save him by converting him to paganism. When Valentine kindly declines, and tarries with a conversion attempt of his own, Claudius also kindly declines, and then lobs off his head. There is also a brief mention of Valentine healing the blind daughter of his jailer; but it seems to have mattered little in the outcome.
What is important about this story is that somebody didn’t like it. To them, it lacked something--ROMANCE!!!! So they reworked the tale, using the same cast of characters but adding in a decree: that young men were not allowed to marry. This was because Claudius believed marriage made men into weak soldiers, and his goal was to make his army the strongest it could possibly be. Therefore, marriage for young men was banned. Valentine, however, disagreed and began secretly wedding young couples. When Claudius caught wind of Valentine’s disregard for the law, he immediately had him arrested and thrown in jail. Then, he had him executed.
What is important about this story is that it provided a more interesting narrative to Valentine’s life--and somebody didn’t like it. Perhaps “didn’t like” is the wrong way of putting it. Instead, they saw potential. That’s better, because potential is the root of all lies. Valentine’s real story was good, inspiring, but it had the potential to be something greater—A ROMANTIC TRAGEDY!!!! What was Romeo without Juliet? What was Orpheus without Eurydice? And what was Valentine without the blind daughter of the jailer? Well, dead, but that’s a small matter. So, it was reworked again. Same characters. Same decree. Same disobedience. Same arrest. But this time Valentine heals the daughter, and then they fall madly in love. It’s the classic love affair brought on by Florence Nightingale syndrome, but with a man who has taken a vow of chastity. What a twist! What tension! And on the eve of his execution, with death looming in the morning light, he writes her a small note and signs it “From Your Valentine.”
Supposedly, this is how it all began. Centuries ago.
We have no idea if this is true, though. We do know that the oldest Valentine in existence is from the 15th century and was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. From his jail cell in the Tower of London, he composed for her a rondeau, a French form of poetry that consists of fifteen lines with rhyming couplets and a refrain. The poem is sweet and touching, but sadly never reached the duchess, partly because she died before it could reach her, and partly because an English guardsman at the time, who spoke decent French, found this in the final two lines:
Please put in my box of chocolates
A friendly file to grind these bars with
The guardsman did offer Charles the chance to edit these verses, but he declined, seeing his plan foiled.
The tradition of Valentine’s Day continued to stumble forward out of history and gained considerable momentum in the 19th century. The mass production of paper valentines in factories lowered their price and increased their availability to a mass public. Reduced rates in postage hastened the trend of sending valentines by mail, and anonymously. And with a British publisher’s printing of The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, young men who had no gift for poetry, or free verse, or writing of any kind, were given the hope of courting women at least one day a year. We find evidence of this in a letter from Victoria Helms to her friend Charlotte Church.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Saint Valentine’s day had become a national holiday in the United States, thanks in large part to Esther Howland, who spear-headed the mass production of Valentines. They began carrying pre-written messages, or cartoons, some thoughtful and romantic, and others humorous or racy. Ultimately, the nineteenth century gave way to the capitalism of the twentieth and Valentine’s Day also became the day for chocolate, flowers, diamonds, and lingerie.
And there you have it. The Most Truthful History of Valentine’s Day Ever Written.