Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thursday in History: Valentinus and his Day

Lots of people were killed by Roman emperors. Lots of them were martyred Christians. One of them, it seems, died on this day in 270 AD, and his name was Valentinus. That’s really all we know about him: his name, and the day he died. For his death as a martyr, he was made a saint. And on the day of his death, we celebrate romantic love.
Keeping track of the feast days was (is) a way for the church to keep track of the calendar. Time is easier to keep track of when you have something to reference it by, and in the past there were no weekends, so it was easier to say “three days after the feast of Saint Cyril” or “on the Eve of Saint Ignatius.” Every saint has a day that holds meaning for them, usually the day they died and became a saint, or their dies natalis, which in Latin means “day of birth” (into heaven). Saint Valentine did not die with heroic stories attached to him, and there was certainly nothing about love, unless his obvious love for Christ from John 15: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (NKJV) And there’s nothing super romantic about dying (there really isn’t, Shakespeare).
There are lots of legends that sprung up about Saint Valentine the man. It was said that he performed marriages that were illegal in the Roman empire. These were probably simply for Christians, but there is something added about sailors or soldiers being married illegally by the Saint. The addition of hearts to this holiday was added because it was reported that Valentius was giving pieces of parchment to the people he married, cut in the shape of hearts (though why a heart shape I can’t find), to “remind them of God’s love and to encourage them to remain faithful Christians.”1
Reportedly, after being arrested, Valentinus was interrogated by the emperor himself, who was intrigued by him and urged him to deny Christianity, to which the Saint refused and instead offered to help the emperor with his own conversion to the then-illegal religion. This must have amused the emperor, but we know he didn’t accept, since Valentinus was then sentenced to death. There are wild stories about how he healed a bunch of people while in prison, most importantly his jailer’s daughter, whose sight he restored. This miracle caused a rash of conversions, everyone in the jailer’s household was baptized. The sending of notes by lovers comes from a tale that tells of a note that Valentinus sent the evening before he was martyred to the girl whose sight he had healed, which was signed “Your Valentine.”
Legend isn’t fact, so why did a perfectly normal feast day to honor a martyr turn into a festivity for romantic love?
Enter Geoffrey Chaucer. He lived in the end of the 14th century, when chivalry and courtly love were flourishing. A civil servant during his working life, Chaucer traveled throughout Europe on various missions for his King, and may have heard some of the legends about Saint Valentine during these trips.
In Jack B. Oruch’s article St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February, Oruch discusses the many different ways to determine when spring begins, Chaucer’s understanding of calendars, and Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (Parliment of Fowls). “Looking at a calendar for February, then, Chaucer would have found, in all likelihood, no more apt choice of a patron for the new season than the beautifully named St. Valentine, whose feast was celebrated halfway between the two February dates for the beginning of spring.”2 Since the other feast days around that period celebrated saints that did not “lend themselves easily to verse and rhyme,”3 Oruch determined that this was where Valentius the martyr became associated with romantic love: the date of his death was around the time when birds began to sing (and choose their mates). Or as Chaucer put it,
“For this was on seynt Valentynes day,

Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make...”4
Chaucer goes on to mention the saint (and his feast day) three more times in subsequent lines, which leads Oruch to conclude that this poem is the first time that Saint Valentine was mentioned in relation to love. Since Chaucer made such a point about stressing the connection, it must have been a new idea, or as Oruch puts it, “supsequent allusions to Valentine’s Day in the works of Chaucer and others could be briefer, and they were.”5
The meaning of a day can change over two thousand years. It can go from an insignificant date to the day a man died for refusing to set aside his beliefs. It can be transformed into a feast day in celebration of a martyr, a saint. That saint can bring fame to the day he died by stories told about him, whether truth or fiction. These stories can inspire a writer to publish even more fiction. And several centuries later, the majority of the population can be celebrating a holiday that has nothing to do with the life of the man who died on that day.
Happy Valentine’s Day. Remember Valentinus and his sacrifice. Remember Chaucer and his creativity. And enjoy the day as it is today.

1 “Valentine's Day,” in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Last modified on February 9 2013 at 8:13; (accessed February 10, 2013), 1.2
2 Jack B. Oruch, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February” In Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981) pp. 534-565 (accessed February 10, 2013), 556
3 Oruch, St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February, 556
4 Oruch, St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February, 556
5 Oruch, St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February, 557

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