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Who was St Valentine and why is he associated with love?

Martyr thought to have performed Christian weddings in defiance of Emperor Claudius and delivered secret letters between jailed lovers

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 14 February 2024 10:10 GMT
Valentine's Day: Where does the tradition come from?

Valentine’s Day, which lurches around with nauseating regularity every 14 February, sees couples honour the tradition of courtly love by crowding into Prezzo restaurants, vouchers clutched in anxious fists, to stare blankly at their plates and sink prosecco in a desperate bid to drown out that gnawing sense of existential dread.

But who was the man who started all this horror?

The real Valentinus was a Roman priest (or perhaps the bishop of Terni – there are three likely candidates whose stories are often conflated) who lived from 226 AD to 269 AD and was known for ministering to persecuted Christians, commonly thrown to the lions in the colosseum as macabre entertainment.

He was decapitated on 14 February and buried at a Christian cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of the city and the date has been kept for the Feast of St Valentine ever since it was first inauguarated by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD in tribute to his memory.

Little else is known about his life, although he is thought to have defied the Emperor Claudius by performing Christian weddings, perhaps even handing out parchment hearts as a reminder of the love of God or delivering letters between jailed lovers in secret.

It is for these reasons he has come to be considered the patron saint of love and lovers, a slightly contradictory notion for a faith at other times placing an emphasis on self-denial.

Valentines Day is celebrated every year on 14 February (Getty Images)

An alternative explanation comes from Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Parliament of Foules (1380) mentions: “Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.”

Few details can be substantiated from the saint’s biography relating to romance, the argument goes, so his association with the theme has more to do with fanciful revisionism in the Middle Ages, Chaucer associating his matrydom and feast day with the arrival of spring and the optimism and renewal the season represents.

Chaucer’s influence was carried thereafter by the poets, from William Shakespeare to John Donne, and, by the Victorian era, the custom of exchanging cards or gifts as tokens of affection had taken hold.

St Valentine’s skull, crowned with flowers, is on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, while the rest of his bodily remains are retained at St Anton’s Church in Madrid, Spain.

The one exception is his heart, which has been held at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland, since 1836, where it serves as a site of Christian pilgrammage for those in search of true love.

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