The historical existence of many of the saints we cherish has been called into question by modern scientific-critical methods. But, not to worry, this is not the problem with St. Valentine ( Latin name: Valentinus ). In his case, we have at least two, and perhaps three, candidates for the title.
The good news is that these three were all martyrs in the early years of the formation of the Christian religion. They all wrote letters and they all had the good sense to die on the same day. The bad news is that the letters they wrote were not romantic, but epistles exhorting people to be good Christians.
Our first candidate is a Christian priest named Valentinus who was martyred in Rome on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian bridge. On this bridge on 28 October 312, Constantine, with the Cross of Christ as his standard, vanquished his rivals for control of the Roman Empire. But we are getting ahead of our story. Our hero was martyred on 14 February 269 ( or 270 or 273 ) some 40 years before the establishment of Christianity as the official state religion of Rome.
The second Valentinus was a Christian bishop of the Diocese of Terni in central Italy who was martyred on 14 February 273 on the Via Flaminia and likewise buried there. Some suggest that these two martyrs are one and the same martyr. Perhaps they are: their stories are very similar.
We know nothing about the third Valentinus, a Christian martyred in North Africa on 14 February around the year 270. So I will dismiss candidate number 3 and conflate the stories associated with Valentinus 1 and 2 to make one good story.
To assure my readers of my superior journalistic ethical standards: I must reveal that I personally paid my respects to St. Valentinus in his church built in 1960 for the Olympic games in Rome ( To promote romance among athletes? ). I also kissed a countess in the middle of the Milvian bridge.
While I am at the business of confessing, there is a fourth St. Valentinus, a bishop of Genoa, Italy. He died of natural causes on 03 May 307. He's important because of Chaucer. And Birds.
In his 700 line poem Parlement of Foules, Chaucer ( 1343 — 1400 ) has Scipio Africanus guide him through the spheres of the heavens to the temple of Venus to learn some 'certeyn thing' about love. Scipio leads Chaucer through her house of love, full of images of doomed lovers across the ages, to the light of Nature where the birds, on the third day of May, enter into a raucous debate to choose their mates. Like our own USA Congress, the birds cannot agree on much. The disappointed Chaucer awakens.
Even though he has failed to learn some 'certeyn thing' about love Romantic or other, Chaucer instigates the tradition of St. Valentine Day by penning lines in Foules ( Fowls ) exhorting humans to learn from the birds ( his idealized Nature ) how to discover the right mate in accordance with the principles of Christian Friendship.
Though there is scant evidence for our St Valentine Day prior to Chaucer, histories abound asserting that this custom is based in the rituals of the Lupercalia ( 13 — 15 February ) a Roman fertility festival. In this version of history, Pope Gelasius 1 established the feast of St. Valentine in 496 to suppress the pagan Lupercalia and to provide a Christian model for courtship. The idea that St. Valentine wrote letters to his non-existent sweetheart may be based on the possibility that St. Valentine sent letters to the jailer and/or the jailer's daughter, converting them thereby to Christianity, and that he secretly married Christian Roman soldiers, a capital offense because the emperor needed unmarried soldiers to fight his wars.
In my judgment, however, Chaucer is the clear creator of St. Valentine Day. Never underestimate the power of the poet.
The oldest extant Valentines were written from the Tower of London ( c. 1417 ) by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, whom he calls his 'gentle Valentine,' while he was captive after the battle of Agincourt.
The tradition of making your own 'Valentine' and sending it to your sweetheart or cherished friend flourished in 18th century England and from thence to the entire world. It has even taken root in Islamic countries, to great controversy.
I take St. Valentine Day as an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of romance, love, friendship, and marriage. And sex. And to be grateful for the wonderful friends in my life. A lot to think about on the 14th of February.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of
Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.