Valentine’s Day has a curious history. Its name belongs to an early Christian martyred in Rome during the 3rd century. When Pope Gelasius in 496 added Valentine to the Catholic register of officially recognized saints, he could never have imagined that the day chosen to commemorate him, Feb. 14, would become consecrated for lovers.
We don’t know much about Valentine. Indeed, there may well have been two 3rd century martyrs named Valentine — a Roman priest executed during the reign of the emperor Claudius and a bishop of Terni, also martyred in Rome. Nor do we know exactly when or how the holiday was transformed from a sacred into an amorous event. One of the most pervasive explanations is that Valentine’s Day was linked to a pre-Christian Roman feast called Lupercalia celebrated on Feb. 15. On that day, Roman boys supposedly drew girls’ names from an urn and the two “coupled” for the duration of the festival. But the association between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day has no firm foundation in fact.
We do know that St. Valentine’s Day was already associated with love by the late 14th century. In England during the 1380s, Chaucer wrote two poems situating Feb. 14 as the day when birds choose their mates, which he suggested set a model for human lovers. However fanciful, this idea resonated within English and French courtly society.
Chaucer’s friend, John Gower, who wrote in French and Latin as well as English, also composed Valentine poems with similar references to birds. Like many of his contemporaries nourished on courtly love, he promoted the priority of the heart in human affairs. As he put it: “Where the heart is / the body must obey.”
The high-born Frenchman Charles d’Orléans, during his long British imprisonment from 1415 to 1440, wrote what is considered the first known Valentine card to his wife, Bonne d’Armagnac, living in France. He addressed her as “My very gentle Valentine,” and insisted that his love for her endured despite the distance between them.
In another poem written for St. Valentine’s Day, Charles bemoaned his difficult destiny:
This year the men and women who are
Lovers choose Saint Valentine
I remain alone, without aid,
On the hard bed of painful thoughts.
On that day in France, men and women would reach into an urn, draw the name of their valentine,and treat such persons with affection. (You can see why people have made the connection to Lupercalia.) Just how far this affection went is unknown. But, two centuries later, the French priest and prolific writer, Jean-Pierre Camus, excoriated the practice, especially when “married men select their neighbors’ wives or daughters as their valentines,” and “wives end up with single young men or other women’s husbands.”
By the mid-17th century in England, Valentine’s Day was beginning to have a commercial side. Men drew lots with women’s names on them, and were obliged to give a gift to the selected lady. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary entry of Feb. 13, 1661, that in preparation for the next day’s festivities, he and his wife chose their valentines by lot at the home of Sir William Batten. Sir Batten picked Pepys’ wife, to whom he subsequently sent “a half-dozen pair of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters.” Celebrating Valentine’s Day in the style of Pepys and Batten was certainly not for the masses.
Yet the holiday spread among common folk, mainly in the form of cards. Eighteenth century handmade valentines consisted of a few lines of verse embellished with hearts, birds and flowers. In the early 19th century, commercially produced Valentine’s Day cards became available, first in England and the United States, then in France and the rest of Europe.
Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated throughout the world, with many cultural variations. In France as well as in Italy, it is strictly a day for lovers and does not extend to family members and friends, as it does in England and in the United States. In Japan, it is the women who give chocolates to men — a certain type to their non-romantic male friends and colleagues, and a different type to their boyfriends, lovers or husbands.
The evolution of a religious event into a secular holiday is odd, but it’s no rarity. Think of Halloween, which was originally the Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. Think of Christmas, created to honor the birth of Jesus, which is now synonymous with Santa Claus and gift-giving.
St. Valentine, however transformed in the public eye, can at least take comfort in knowing that his name has survived all these years, even if it’s associated with practices he might not have condoned.
Marilyn Yalom is the author of “The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love.”