Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and those of us who are paired up will be looking forward to a romantic 24 hours. Few of us, I imagine, will be praying to an ancient Christian saint. Historically, though, the 14th Feb is dedicated to Saint Valentine. So, who was this enigmatic saint of romance?
Who was St Valentine?
As usually happens when ancient history gets mixed up with theology, there’s a bit of controversy over who St Valentine actually was. There are two main contenders for the title. The first was a temple priest of Rome who died in around 270AD. The second was the Bishop of Terni, who died a similar death at around the same time.
The former has a more romantic story than the latter, so he’s generally the one that people go with. But it’s worth noting that the association of the day with romance came nearly 1000 years after the deaths of these men. The original day may well have been dedicated to the Terni saint before the other Valentine muscled in on his act.
What’s the story?
Well, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II the Roman Empire had a bit of a problem with desertion in the ranks of the Roman army. There were many reasons for this, but Claudius honed in on one in particular: families. He believed that married soldiers were prone to deserting because;
- a)They were worried about what would happen to their families if they were killed in battle, and
- b)They were just plain homesick for their wives and kids.
So, to solve the problem, he made it illegal for soldiers to be married.
Christianity - then a minor but growing religious sect - had a bit of a thing for marriage at the time. Early Christian leaders considered marriage a very important sacrament and thought that forbidding marriage was just terrible (this position has changed a few times over the centuries. Christianity has a weird history with marriage. Just ask Catherine of Aragon.) On a less pious note, soldiers knew that proof of marriage would keep them safe from conscription - and were happy to convert to Christianity if it kept them out of the army.
So, Valentine performed secret marriages both for soliders and for those who did not want to become soldiers. Nice, eh?
But that’s not what he’s a saint for. That’s just the bit of his story which explains why he’s the patron saint of lovers. His entire story is an epic involving numerous adventures and miracles, including healing a judge’s blind daughter and attempting to convert Claudius II to Christianity (for which he was martyred in typically nasty fashion). The marriage thing is just a footnote.
So why did this footnote get ramped up into the Hallmark day we celebrate now? Probably because of a poem written by Chaucer over 1000 years after Valentine died, in which he claimed that birds choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. It’s a cute idea which really resonated with folk. So, here we are. Isn’t tradition weird?
Other St Valentine trivia
- ‘Valentinus’ (from which the name ‘Valentine’ is derived) is Latin for ‘worthy’ or ‘powerful’.
- St Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers, people with epilepsy, and (wait for it) plague. Yep, plague. If you’re a cynic who thinks that the rash of pink and hearts which appear around this time of year is a bit of a plague, this may seem appropriate.
- St Valentine’s skull (or a skull which some claim belonged to St Valentine) is on display on Rome. It’s in the Santa Maria Basilica, and it’s wearing a rather ghoulish coronet of flowers.
- St Valentine was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969 due to ‘a lack of reliable information’, although most other saint-accepting denominations still venerate him.