|St Valentine Kneeling In Supplication, David Teniers III (1638-1685)|
He first makes an appearance as a saint in 496 when Pope Gelasius I designated February 14 as his feast day, saying of him, apparently without the slightest hint of irony, that he is amongst those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." In other words, they're great men who undoubtedly should be revered - but we just don't know what they actually did.
'Knowledge' without any evidence was just as common amongst religious people, especially clerics, in those days as it is today it seems.
There are various accounts associating Valentine or Valentinus with being executed by the Emperor Claudius II in around about 270. In fact there appear to be at least three claimants to the title.
- A Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)
- A Roman priest
- Someone called Valentinus who was killed along with several companions in the Roman province of Africa.
All these are reputed to have been martyred on February 14 but, as is often the case with church 'history', when a saint is designated as having died on a given date that becomes the date on which they died, so it's hardly surprising that all three contenders for the title 'Saint Valentine' are now said to have dutifully been martyred on the official date. How dare it have been otherwise? The first two are also claimed to have been executed by Claudius II outside the Flaminium Gate but, again, how much of that is official church 'truth' and how much is real truth is probably impossible to say.
It has been suggested by the eighteenth century English antiquarians Alban Butler and Francis Douce that the Feast of St Valentine may have been an attempt to supplant the mid-February pagan feast of Lupercalia with a Christian one.
Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Plutarch - Life of Caesar
So the connection with love and fertility may come from an ancient, even pre-Roman, pagan festival which subsumed the even earlier Februa from which we get 'February'.
Most of the traditions now associated with Saint Valentine's Day in the English-speaking world are believed to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Foules which is set in the context of a fictional tradition. There does not appear to be any basis for associating Valentine with lovers and a fourteenth century French Vies des Saintes has Valentine overseeing the building of his basilica at Terni but makes no mention of him being a patron of lovers. Of course, a great deal also owes it's origins to the commercial interests of the greetings card and chocolate industries.
Like so many early Christian martyr and saints, Valentine seems to have contrived to die in a way which provided the hundreds of relics which are now scattered throughout the Christian world. Valentine's various body parts can be found in Prague in the Czech Republic, Rome in Italy, Dublin in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland, Birmingham in England, Roquemaure in France, Vienna in Austria, and Balzan in Malta, where they continue to attract visitors with gifts of money to show their devotion and to buy the cheaply-made tacky and mawkishly sentimental souvenirs.
As with so much else about the Catholic Church in particular, and Christianity in general, the distinction between legend, myth, invention and fact is obscure, irrelevant and merely incidental. The important thing is to keep the people ignorant, credulous, superstitious, fearful and in awe of the priesthood as the only means by which they can hope for jam tomorrow whilst accepting the hopelessness of today, and allowing the priesthood to get away with it.