Exploring the true origins of the now candy-laden Hallmark holiday.
Officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, St. Valentine is known to be a real person who died around A.D. 270. However, his true identity was questioned as early as A.D. 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who referred to the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” One account from the 1400s describes Valentine as a temple priest who was beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples wed. A different account claims Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome. Because of the similarities of these accounts, it’s thought they may refer to the same person. Enough confusion surrounds the true identity of St. Valentine that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969, though his name remains listed in the Roman Martyrology.
The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list. Because “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular moniker between the second and eighth centuries A.D., several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name. The official Roman Catholic roster of saints shows about a dozen who were named Valentine or some variation thereof.
Because of this, you can choose to celebrate the saint multiple times each year. Besides February 14, you might decide to celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbo on November 3. Or maybe you want to get a head start on the traditional Valentine celebration by feting St. Valentine of Raetia on January 7. Women might choose to honor the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, A.D. 308.
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Pictured is the flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In the early 1800s, the excavation of a catacomb near Rome yielded skeletal remains and other relics now associated with St. Valentine.
O glorious advocate and protector, St. Valentine, look with pity upon our wants, hear our requests, attend to our prayers, relieve by your intercession the miseries under which we labor, and obtain for us the divine blessing, that we may be found worthy to join you in praising the Almighty for all eternity. Amen.