Think you know everything there is to know about this Hallmark holiday? Keep reading to find out some surprising facts about Valentine’s Day.
Okay, in case you need a refresher, it goes like this. Roman emperor, Claudius II decreed that no soldier could marry because he believed single men were more valiant in combat (translation – they had nothing to lose). Enter Valentinus. Something of a romantic sod, he thought those poor men were getting a raw deal and continued to marry them and their sweethearts in secret. Right up until he got busted and tossed in the clink for defying an edict by the Emperor. At this point he might or might not have fallen in love with the warden’s daughter, and he may or may not have sent her a farewell letter just before his execution signed “Your Valentine.” Either way, this is the Valentine’s Day genesis story.
The question is, how did we go from martyred romantic to the ultimate Hallmark holiday?
I was under the impression that this whole business of exchanging cards and gifts was a product of 20th century advertising and mass production. As it turns out, I was wrong (it happens occasionally).
The first mention of the word Valentine in connection with romance is found in this passage from Chaucer’s 1382 work, Parliament of Foules:
Of course, considering most birds in the UK don’t mate until spring – he probably wasn’t referring to February 14th.
Some romantic historians believe that the assignation of mid-February as the chosen date for amour is a nod to the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia. According to Plutarch, on the date of the festival “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.” It also involved the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog.
So. That was a thing.
The earliest surviving Valentine in the English language comes from a 1477 letter written by a young woman by the name of Margery to her sweetheart, John. Here’s an excerpt:
The next time your kids wonder why they should study spelling – point them to this letter. She begs her ‘ryght welebeloved Voluntyne’ (right well beloved Valentine) not to leave her even though her father will not increase her dowry.
Aside from learning that women were sometimes required to dicker with their beloved for their own selling price, we also learn that the concept of the Valentine was just as ingrained in British society by the fifteenth century as it is throughout the west today. (For any romantics out there, this couple did eventually marry and have a son.)
By the sixteenth century everyone from John Donne to Shakespeare to Edmund Spenser had jumped on the Valentine’s Day bandwagon and there was no going back. February 14th had become the day that men habitually forgot and single girls everywhere dreaded.