As I write this, we are less than a week away from a day that is often dreaded by males and lonely singles of both genders: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day may have begun as an ancient pagan festival. The Roman feast of Lupercalia honored Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage, and was held on February the 14th. During Lupercalia, women would write love letters, known as billets, and place them in a large vessel. The men would draw billets from the vessel and would pursue the woman whose letter they had drawn.
February 14th may have cemented its amorous reputation during the Middle Ages as Medieval Europeans, who believed that birds began mating on February 14th and saw the day as an excellent day to send love letters.
There is a small bit of confusion as to which St. Valentine is honored by the holiday as the Catholic Church recognizes three saints named Valentine (or Valentinus) and all were apparently martyred on February 14 (Denton).
The most likely candidate is a 3rd century Roman priest who, despite direct orders from Roman Emperor Claudius II, performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers. The emperor believed that single soldiers were more likely to join his legions. Claudius had the priest arrested and, according to legend, the priest sent a note to the jailer’s daughter which was signed, “from your Valentine,” before he was executed on February 14 in 270 A.D. (Denton).
As was the case with many of our holidays, the ancient pagan festivals were replaced with holidays honoring Christian saints. Lupercalia, then, became St. Valentine’s Day in 496 when Pope Gelasius named the day in honor of the patron saint of lovers.
By the 15th century, spoken and singing valentines were replaced by written letters of love. Charles, Duke of Orleans, is credited with being one of the earliest creators of valentines. After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles was imprisoned in the Tower of London. While there he passed the time writing rhyming love letters, valentines, to his wife in France (techdirect.com).
The earliest known valentine was sent in 1477. It was written by Margaret Brews of England and dedicated to her soon-to-be husband, John Paston, whom she called her “Ryght Welbeloved Voluntyn.”
By the sixteenth century, the exchange of written valentines had become commonplace. Late in the sixteenth century, Giovanni Portia expanded upon Ovid’s recipes adding twelve new formulas for concealing writing in love letters.
The seventeenth century saw the beginning of “form” love letters as booklets appeared offering poems that writers could copy into love letters of their own.
The first commercial valentine cards appeared around 1800 and were, by today’s standards, quite crude. However within thirty years the cards had become small works of art decorated with gilding, lace, ribbon and satin. They were also quite expensive. By the 1840’s mechanical valentines appeared. These cards featured such gimmicks as pull tabs which, when pulled, caused another part of the card to move.
Of course, then came the the Hallmarks of the world, and the rest is capitalism and hormones at work.
Denton, Paul. “History of Valentine’s Day.” http//www.alivenetwork.com/content.asp?ID=41
-Dr. B. Keith Murphy is Interim Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Fort Valley State University