The History of Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentines’ Day to everyone!

For me Valentine’s day is just a day to express love/affection.  I end up getting gifts for my family and close friends if I’m seeing them that day. For many however, its a day for romantically involved couples to express their love for one another in a more formal way.  It’s definately a holiday built upon cards and gifts.  Different cultures treat it differently though. 

The February holiday is a primarily American based holiday, having spread to other countries.  However, many countries across the world have days celebrating love of all kinds; romantic, platonic, familial.  Many countries that celebrate in February only were introduced to it during the last century as the day became more commercialized in nature.  While it may have many origins in Europe, the modern version seems focused on commercialised version developed in the US.  In some cases it has replaced earlier versions of a day to celebrate love.

The day itself named after a Catholic Saint named Valentinus or Valentine of Rome whose feast day was celebrated on February 14th.  Not much is known about St. Valentine even by those who turned him into a saint after his death in the third century. It wasn’t until the 5th century the the Church gathered together a comprehensive list of their saints and martyrs. Due to the time gap specifics about Valentinus and others on the list were lost.  However, in the centuries following, legends started to be ascribed to him, perhaps as an attempt to fill in the blanks the early Christians forgot to fill out.

He was rumored to have married soldiers, who at the time were not legally allowed to wed in Rome.  This caused him to be imprisoned where he met and healed the Warden’s daughter of her blindness.  Apparently they struck up a friendship, for he left her a letter in this legend signed ‘Your Valentine’.  The later is the legend used to explain the giving of cards on this day.

St. Valentine was not really associated with love until the 15th century. During that time the idea of ‘Courtly Love’ (although termed that centuries later) became popular.  Geoffrey Chaucer is often credited with originating the modern ‘legend’ of Saint Valentine in his Parlement of Foules.   Saint Valentine is actually mentioned four times, including this verse:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

(The Parliament of Fowls, translated by A.S. Kline 2008)

Chaucer and his contemporaries used courtly love as a literary device, but it became a popular way of thinking during the middle ages. It inspired other areas of life, including the creation of of the concept of chivalry, like that written about by Sir Geoffroi de Charny, a french knight.  His Livre de Chevalerie (The Book of Chivalry) was a volume on how a proper knight should act.

The epic Le Morte d’Arthur was written by  Sir Thomas Malory, and with the theme of courtly love in mind. Many of the common legends with Arthur actually originate with this rather then previous stories of Welsh and British history. The grand romance of Guinevere and Lancelot derive from this french account of Arthur’s life.

Essentially, during the middle ages, an idea of romantic love was developed that involved a set of rules that society would use to court one another.  Courtly love was more about emotional love, then the physical, and often involved a man loving a woman from afar who was unavailable to him.  However he would remain faithful to the object of his affection.  The rules of chivalry came out of this by giving knights, and other nobles, a proper way of interacting.  A romanticised version of behavior.   André Le Chapelain wrote a treatise on it as well.  It became a popular theme in literature and spread throughout Europe and was influenced by their interactions with the middle east as well, since this was the era of the crusades.

The modern take with giving gifts didn’t develop till the Victorian age, and of course the last century or so has changed the holiday as well, as it has become more commercialized and marketed.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Valentine’s Day

Parliament of Fowls (Poetry in Translation with available download)

Livre de Chevalerie (the Book of Chivery)

Wikipedia: Courtly Love

Courtly Love


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