St. Valentine (Died c. 269)
St. Valentine was a physician and a priest, perhaps even a bishop, in Rome. During his time, the Emperor Claudius the Goth sought to raise a large army. He felt that single men would make better soldiers. St. Valentine secretly married people who were forbidden to wed under Roman law.
Valentine was arrested for his “misdeeds,” imprisoned, and beheaded on February 14.
He was buried on Rome's Flaminian Way, and a basilica was erected there in 350.
The Two Valentines
It seems there was another Roman named Valentine who died on the same day. This man was also a priest and was martyred in Terni, some 60 miles from Rome. This Valentine confessed his faith before the emperor, declaring that the gods Jupiter and Mercury were “shameless and contemptible characters.”
While he was in prison, Valentine befriended the blind daughter of his jailer. He cured her and converted his captor to Christianity. When the emperor heard about his deeds, he had Valentine beaten and beheaded. It is now thought that the two Valentines may have been the same man — taken from one city where he was imprisoned, to the other where he was executed.
Historically, many Christian holidays have merged with more ancient pagan traditions, allowing new converts to retain some of their beloved customs while finding a new focus for their celebrations. This type of mingling very likely occurred in the creation of what is now known as “Valentine's Day.”
Figure 6-1: St. Valentine
Up until 200 years after Valentine's death, the Roman feast of Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. That day commemorated Faunus, one of many Roman deities. To the Romans, Faunus was the god of flocks and fertility. During the day's celebration, single women placed their names in a large bowl and men drew their names. The man would then be that woman's partner during the festival. Occasionally, love matches resulted from the drawing.
The romantic feast of Lupercalia may have been combined with the feast a day earlier for Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage. St. Valentine seems to have become jumbled up in the mix because his martyrdom occurred in proximity to these love feasts and because he seems to have had a tender heart toward lovers.
Legend has it that the very first Valentine may have been sent by this saint. During his time in prison, he befriended a prison guard's daughter. On the day he died, February 14, 264, he is said to have left her a note, thanking her for her friendship. He signed it “Your Valentine.”
The medieval tradition of sending Valentine's Day cards may be rooted in the patterns of the natural world. Medieval folk noticed that birds began to pair around the middle of February, and it was thought that lovers might exchange notes around this time as well. Because St. Valentine's feast was celebrated at this time, the cards took his name.
After the advent of postal systems, Valentine messages grew in popularity — although letters were generally hand-carried, because messages sent through the postal system originally had to be sent “postage due.” St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers. His feast day is February 14, although some religious calendars make no note of it.