Who was Saint Valentine? A history of the figure's origins
Valentine’s Day has been big business since the mid-19th century, when American merchants and printers transformed a religious folk tradition into a modern holiday. But, says Professor Lisa Bitel, few realise that the holiday began as a Christian feast day commemorating an ancient martyr named Valentinus. Here, she explores the history of Valentine’s Day and what's known about the figure who came to be the patron saint of love…
Practically everyone in the English-speaking world knows about Valentine’s Day. Celebrants buy more chocolates, flowers and jewellery on 14 February than on any other day of the year and only Christmas occasions more greeting cards.
Catholics still regard Valentine as the patron saint of engaged couples; happy marriages; love; and lovers. Yet a patron saint of love and lovers is not exactly compatible with Christian doctrine, which has always emphasised the joys of self-denial. Celibacy has been a requirement for priesthood since the Middle Ages, and virginity won sainthood for hundreds of women. Therefore, a saint who sponsors the exchange of candy and kisses between lovers seems doctrinally dubious. So where did this saint come from and how did he become the impresario of sweethearts?
Who was Saint Valentine?
If you consult Wikipedia or Catholic Encyclopedia, or more popular digital publications such as Buzzfeed and History.com, you will read that Valentine lived in the third century, was either a priest or a bishop in Rome, and was jailed by the Roman emperor for being a Christian in the period when the religion remained illegal. Catholic news sites claim that Valentine’s crime was performing marriage rites for Christian lovers; alternatively, some say he carried messages between jailed Christians and, before he was executed, left a letter to a young woman signed “your Valentine”.
But if you dig a bit deeper to read the ancient documents, another Valentine appears. In fact, it turns out there were quite a few Valentines in the Roman Empire. The name was popular among Christians and others because it means ‘powerful’ or ‘worthy’.
It seems that three different martyrs named Valentinus died on 14 February during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus (r268–270); none of whom married Christian couples or carried messages between jailed Christians.
One was a general stationed in Africa. The martyrologies (lists of martyrs organised by death date) say only that “In Africa Valentini & militum viginti quatuor [He perished] in Africa with two dozen troops”. We know nothing more about him.
It turns out there were quite a few Valentines in the Roman Empire
The second was Bishop Valentinus of Terni, a town about 70 miles northeast of Rome; and the third was a Roman priest. According to the vitae (hagiographies) of the latter two, they both performed miraculous cures, debated with pagan jailors, and lost their heads in Rome.
According to his fifth- or sixth-century hagiographer, Bishop Valentinus of Terni was summoned to Rome sometime in the 260s to cure the son of a rhetor [or orator] named Craton, who kept a school and housed visiting Greek scholars. His son Chaeremon, who was also a budding student of philosophy, had contracted a debilitating sickness that curved his spine and prevented him from walking, and Craton learned that the cleric had healed similar cases. But when he arrived, Bishop Valentine first tried to persuade Craton to become a Christian.
Craton, trained in Hellenistic philosophy [Greek philosophy during the period running from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the end of the Roman Republic in 31 BC, known as the Hellenistic Age], found the tenets of Christianity to be illogical and ridiculous. “How can water, which washes filth off the body, clean away sins?!” he demanded. The debate dragged on as Chaeremon lay suffering and dying until Craton desperately struck a deal. If Valentine cured the boy, Craton’s entire household would convert. Valentine then spent the night praying alone with Chaeremon. The next morning, Chaeremon appeared hale and hearty. Everyone, including Craton, his family, servants, and the visiting Greeks, accepted baptism. When the Roman senate got wind of the business they promptly arrested Valentine, had him beaten, and then decapitated. The visiting scholars took the martyr’s body back to Terni to bury it. Unfortunately, Roman soldiers caught them and beheaded them as well.
The third Valentinus, according to his vita, was a priest of Rome also arrested for preaching Christianity in the time of Claudius Gothicus [Roman emperor 268–270]. As several modern scholars have pointed out, Claudius was hardly ever in Rome – he earned his name by fighting off invading Germanic barbarians up north – and he never ordered a persecution of Christians. Whatever the priest Valentinus did to annoy the government, he was supposedly hauled before Claudius and he took the opportunity to preach. Claudius seemed rather interested at first, but a prefect named Calpurnius warned the emperor: “You are being seduced into a false religion!”
Claudius sent Valentine into house arrest at the home of an aristocrat named Asterius, who was promised riches if he could subdue the priest with arguments against Christianity. Of course, Valentine began preaching the minute he arrived at the house, discoursing on Christ as the light of the world. Asterius replied that he had a blind daughter, and said if Valentine’s god could open her eyes to the light of day, Asterius would become a Christian. Valentine lay hands on the girl’s eyes and prayed that she might see the light. When she opened her eyes and looked around her, Asterius fell to Valentine’s feet and begged to be saved. Valentine quickly began baptising everyone around him, making 44 new Christians from Asterius’s household. But Claudius soon found out and had them all thrown in prison. Valentine was beheaded, along with several others who became renowned as martyrs.
None of the three Valentine’s biographies was earlier than the fifth century – that’s at least 200 years after any of the saints supposedly lived. Neither written nor material evidence from the pre-medieval period associates any of these Valentines with love or lovers. The word ‘amor’, Latin for ‘love’, doesn’t appear in the texts. Even when promoting their God, the two better-known Valentines never spoke in terms of affection but only faith and illumination. Instead, they became known in subsequent centuries for curing those who suffered, as Chaeremon did, from “falling sickness” – that is, epilepsy.
Pilgrims, lured by the legends, came to visit the graves of both Valentines for cures, not for love. Religious tourists made the rounds of martyrs’ burials, praying for the saints’ help with illness and for intercession with God. Some went to Bishop Valentine of Terni lying quietly in his Umbrian tomb outside the city of his birth. Others attended the Roman Valentine who was supposedly buried in a crypt near the site of his execution, just outside the city walls on the Via Flaminia of Rome.
Devotees of Roman Valentine may have built a church over his grave as early as the fourth century, though more likely it was named after the much richer Valentine who funded it. They began calling the city gate there Valentine’s Gate (today it is known as the Porta del Populo.) Nineteenth-century excavations at the site revealed fourth- and fifth-century burials as well as fragments inscribed with Valentine’s name.
After some centuries, either pilgrims sought other saints, or Valentine’s shrine declined when Pope Nicholas IV (died in 1292) ordered that Valentine’s body be moved to a new home at Santa Prassede, a flourishing parish centre where many other saints’ remains were housed. Throughout the European Middle Ages, Valentine remained no more or less popular than other ancient Roman martyrs. Every 14 February, church lectors across Europe read out the life of one or the other or both Valentines. Medieval writers sometimes mixed up their Valentines, attributing the miracles of one to another.
Eventually, some medieval scholars grew suspicious about the striking similarities between the stories of the bishop and the priest. They knew that after the empire dwindled, Rome had become a ruined pile of broken, nameless graves, where anyone might reclaim the bones of a ‘martyr’. Bishops and abbots eager for relics did not always properly authenticate the remains of bodies; the shreds of blood-soaked cloth; and the other objects hauled out of crypts and sent northward as relics.
Hagiographers, sensing an opportunity, revised saints’ legends to advertise the presence of relics in their churches. One Breton bishop recorded the slew of miracles that enriched Valentine’s reputation at the end of the 11th century, when the saint’s skull somehow ended up in Roquemaure, where it was exhibited every year on his feast day. That same skull later went to Tarragona, while other bits of the Valentines turned up all over Europe: a skull remains on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome; Saint Anton’s church in Madrid has some bones, as does Santa Maria Assunta in Savona; and a Carmelite church in Dublin. There’s also a bone in Prague (SS. Peter and Paul); a chunk of skull in Chelmno (St Mary’s Assumption); and other slivers in: the parish church of the Oratory in Birmingham (England – look under the St Athanasius altar); Glasgow (Church of Blessed Saint John Duns Scotus); and in the Church of Metastasis of Virgin Mary in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos. The Stephansdom in Vienna brashly claims to have the whole body.
Neither inscriptions on reliquaries that housed his bones, nor sculpture or pictures betrayed Valentine’s association with love. Illuminations and sculptures of Valentine typically showed him as a bishop with staff or a tonsured monk holding a book. In early printed volumes of the 16th century, Valentine often bent over victims of epilepsy or plague. Other scenes depicted eager executioners chopping off his head. Not a single picture showed the saint passing messages or marrying lovers. Valentine himself appeared more stern than romantic.
Chaucer’s patron of love
Modern literary scholars credit one man for turning Valentine into the patron of love: Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and other poetic works. Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules [aka Parliament of Fowls], an allegorical tale thought to have been written during the negotiations of Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380, mentioned “seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.]” Bird love apparently occurred on Valentine’s feast day at the start of the English spring.
Chaucer may have read the hagiographies of Valentine in local English versions. He may have been aware, too, that yet another head of Valentine lay at Hyde Abbey, just outside the walls of Winchester, as literary scholar Jack Oruch has pointed out (‘Saint Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February’, Speculum 56:3 ). But the love connection was Chaucer’s creation.
Chaucer was a major influencer in his day – after him, everyone began calling their beloved 'Valentine'
Chaucer was a major influencer in his day – after him, everyone began calling their beloved “Valentine” and writing love poems on 14 February. Literary acquaintances of Chaucer were among the first to do so in print. Oton de Granson III (died c1397), for instance, wrote three long complainctes to Saint Valentine, as well as poems about the “Wish” and “Dream” of Valentine; while John Gower (died in 1408), who wrote copiously about love, referred to Valentine in two of his ballades. Across the water, Christine de Pizan in her Dit de la Rose described how French knights formed a fictional Order of the Rose on Saint Valentine’s Day.
The religious studies scholar Leigh Schmidt has suggested that Valentine remained important to churchgoers and those who suffered epilepsy as a martyr who died on 14 February (‘The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday’, Winterthur Portfolio 28:4 ). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer explained that Saint Valentine was “famous for his love and charity”, and thus a suitable sponsor of romance.
William Shakespeare and Valentine’s cards
Valentine became more popular as a patron of love and lovers in two contexts: among aristocratic circles and in folk custom. Poets such as William Shakespeare and John Donne continued Chaucer’s tradition of using Valentine and his day as symbols of love. While they composed verses to honour the holiday, others exchanged gifts. In rural communities, meanwhile, men and women got together on Valentine’s Day to make merry and play games, such as drawing lots for Valentines sweethearts and divination – conjuring up the identity of one’s future spouse.
By the 19th century, English consumers were ready and eager for Valentine's cards with poems already printed on them, preferably decorated with love birds, hearts and Cupid (rather than the image of a headless Roman bishop). The London Journal of 1858 supported the custom of exchanging observance love tokens on Valentine’s Day, declaring that it was both “natural” and “proper” that, at the start of spring, “the predominating sentiment in the human mind should be the sentiment of love; and to this accordingly the anniversary of our saint is directed”. However, the publication preferred home-made cards to mass-produced Valentines, about which the editors opined: “If we were to give a general character, we would say they are very trashy and not a little vulgar; and… the production of mercenaries for hire.”
It’s probably a good thing that the Journal’s editors never saw today’s variety of Valentine advertisements, cards, decorations and gifts.
Despite the evidence for Chaucer’s transformation of Valentine’s Day, some scholars have continued to seek ancient causes for Valentine’s modern associations with passion and romance. In the 19th century, historians scoured the sources of classical history for evidence of celebrations in mid-February. They found Lupercalia, a holiday associated with Faunus or Pan, celebrated with a carnival on the Ides of February (15 February.) Colleges or clubs of young noblemen sacrificed goats or dogs on an altar in the cave where, according to legend, Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, were suckled by the famous she-wolf. According to Plutarch, they cut strips for thongs from the bloody hides and ran half-naked around the Palatine hill of Rome, striking nubile women with their thongs to confer fertility. Supposedly, the young men also drew lots for sexual partners.
After Romans became Christians, Pope Gelasius I (d496) prohibited celebrations of Lupercalia and, according to these same modern scholars, substituted the more chaste celebration of a Valentine’s feast day. Other recent scholars have blamed instead Emperor Claudius, who allegedly banned young men from getting married in the third century. Claudius needed more soldiers for his campaigns, so the argument goes, hence soldiers were required by law to remain single while serving. In this version of Valentine’s saintly past, Valentine heroically resisted the emperor and married Christian couples. Yet in reality, Claudius never forbade marriage because he was too busy securing his eastern frontier to decree laws in Rome.
These explanations for Valentine’s Day remain far more popular than the ‘Chaucer Theory’. Updated hagiographies of Valentine and church websites report as facts that an identifiable third-century bishop named Valentine offended the Roman emperor by marrying soldiers and their lovers, and/or passing notes among jailed lovers, and paid for it with his life. Mainstream digital publications claiming to reveal the “true story of the real Saint Valentine” tell similar stories (although those authors who research as far as Wikipedia mention Chaucer’s influence). How ironic that modern celebrants have chosen Cupid – Greco-Roman god of erotic love – as one of the major symbols of the day when Saint Valentine lost his head.
Stripped of saintly status
Unfortunately, Valentine’s revised legend probably caused his loss of saintly status in the modern Catholic church. The Vatican removed Valentine from its universal calendar of saints in 1969 because his legend lacked historical evidence. Catholics are still free to venerate the patron saint of epilepsy if they wish, but it is not a liturgical obligation. Like the rest of the world, devout fans of the saint are free to focus instead on choosing cards and gifts for their loved ones, although believers have found a way to honour the ancient saint and, at the same time, celebrate the holiday of love. At Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Dublin, the Franciscan church that claims to have relics of Valentine, petitioners leave notes to the saint begging for guidance, cures, and love. “Dear Valentine May I find a nice man to settle down with,” pleads one. “Saint Valentine may I please meet Annabelle again,” asks another (Irish Times, 8 February 2014).
We don’t know who the real Valentine was, because our best evidence consists of legends – ancient Christian legends; legends of burials and relics; legends of mating birds and love lotteries; of pagan debauches and wholesome romance. No-one is sure exactly who Valentine (or Valentines) was (or were); or why Christians of late antiquity came to revere him. Meanwhile, the myth-making continues. In 2017, a Brazilian forensic anthropologist used photos of the skull fragment kept in Santa Maria in Cosmedin and reconstructed the face of Saint Valentine (MailOnline, 13 February 2017) – but which one?
Lisa Bitel is Dean's Professor of religion and professor of religion and history at the University of Southern California (USC). She specialises in the social, cultural, and religious history of medieval Europe