Beheadings, Roman brutality and a Parliament of Fowls — doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The truth is that Februarys’ celebrated holiday — St. Valentine’s Day — has a complex and varied history.
The truth is, little is known about the origins of Valentine’s. Like many of the highlights of history, the titular Saint Valentine is shrouded in mystery. There are at least three contenders for the title — all Christian martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. Saint Valentine of Rome perhaps has the most attractive story, being both romantic and tragic in equal measure. During the Roman Empire, Claudius ii ordered that young men be forced to become soldiers. He believed that romance and marriage weakened a man — binding him emotionally to his wife and family — and that the best way to equip the army with fitter, more resilient soldiers was to outlaw marriage. Like many things that are outlawed — be it the prohibition of the early 20th century, or novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita — they tend to take on a shiny new allure that makes the ban almost impossible to enact in reality. Thanks to Valentine, young men discovered that they could have the best of both worlds: to become excellent soldiers and marry their sweethearts in secret. For Valentine, performing these secret marriages was not just a means of helping young men, but was an act of restorative justice — he was giving back what should never have been taken away in the first place. Sadly for Valentine (and the young people he performed the ceremonies for) Claudius soon discovered his actions, and ordered that he be beheaded. It’s also thought that Valentine may have been involved in emancipating Christians from the brutal prisons of the Roman Empire — yet another reason for his execution.
If you’ve ever wondered why people send Valentine’s greetings to each other, Valentine’s story might be responsible for that too. Whilst Valentine was imprisoned in the run-up to his execution, rumour has it he feel in love with and began a romantic relationship with his jailor’s daughter. In one of his many notes to her, he signed himself off as ‘Your Valentine’: and therein a centuries-long tradition began. Whether this particular Saint Valentine is truly the inaugurator of Valentine’s Day may never be known, but perhaps this doesn’t matter. What is important is that he embodies a heroic and self-sacrificing figure — someone who fights for what they believe in. Surely far more romantic than any Hallmark Valentine’s card or candle-lit dinner?
Geoffrey Chaucer (C:1343-1400) — best-known for The Canterbury Tales — is probably not the first name that springs to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Yet the earliest reference that I’ve heard to Valentine’s Day in literature was found when studying Chaucer’s dream-vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Some believe that it is indeed the first Valentine’s poem ever written and the first reference to the day in English literature:
For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.
Chaucer establishes Valentine’s day as the courting season for his Parliament of Fowls and the poem is full of the kind of picturesque imagery we associate with the modern Valentine’s Day: ‘A garden saw I full of blossoming boughs…Where sweetness evermore bountiful is’ to name but a few. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season — which may have given Chaucer the imaginative spark he required to write The Parliament Of Fowls.
Yet the idea that Chaucer popularised Valentine’s Day is still up for debate — it’s thought that the celebration of spring in the poem means that it is likely set later than mid-February. This corresponds with the theory that Chaucer wrote the poem for King Richard ii (1367–1400) during negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. This perhaps makes the denouement of the poem — where the birds opt to defer the choosing of their mate — as much of a political statement as a domestic one. One theory proposes that Chaucer is actually referring to May 3 — and this speculation is bolstered by the fact that this was the date that Richard’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia was announced.
We’ll probably never know whether Chaucer’s poem was intended to be set in winter or spring. Perhaps like the festive season, part of the reason we have Valentine’s Day in the middle of February is to give us something to celebrate in the midst of the otherwise bleak mid-winter. The conclusion to Chaucer’s poem may endorse this interpretation:
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.
Much like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness.