Valentine’s Day marks the annual celebration of romance when we express our affection for loved ones, shower them in gorgeous gifts, chocolate treats and heartfelt messages. In modern times, the 14 February has become a huge commercial event with romantic Brits spending an estimated £1.5 billion on cards and gifts. However, behind all the fluffy hearts, red roses and fizz, the history of Valentine’s day can be traced back to Roman times.
St Valentine’s Day originates from the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which celebrated the coming of spring with fertility rituals and the pairing off of women - by lottery - to men! It was Pope Gelasius who replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th Century, with some historians arguing that he wanted to Christianise the Roman Festival.
Although the day derives its name from a famous saint, there are several theories on the identity of the real Valentine. In Christian history, there are several martyrs with the name Valentine and two share the feast day of 14 February. Both of these saints were martyred in Rome; Valentine of Terni in around AD 197 and Valentine of Rome in approximately AD 496.
One theory is that Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome were one of the same. However, many believe that St Valentine was the priest from Rome as he was present (during the time) when Emperor Claudius II Gothicus had banned marriage, because he believed that married men made ineffective soldiers.
Legend has it that the priest rebelled against this unfair ruling and arranged marriages for love-struck couples in secret, thus sparing husbands from the atrocities of war. Historical accounts tell us that when Valentine’s secret was discovered, Claudius threw him in jail, where he was sentenced to death. It was while in prison, awaiting his fate, that Valentine fell head over heels for the jailer’s daughter; writing his final love letter, just before he met his fate, on 14th February. Signed ‘from your Valentine’.
It wasn’t until the 14th Century that St Valentine’s Day was celebrated as a day of romance; with formal messages, or valentines, starting to appear in the 1500s. While imprisoned in the Tower of London following The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife (in what is believed to be one of the earliest surviving Valentine’s missives) “Je suis desja d’amour tanné. Ma tres doulce Valentinée.” Roughly translated as, “I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine”. Remarkably, this letter has survived in the manuscript collections of the British Library. This venerable institution also holds the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in the English language, which dates back to 1477, sent by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston, where she describes him as her “right well-beloved Valentine”.
By the late 1700s, Valentine’s Day was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and commercially printed cards started to make an appearance. It wasn’t until 19th Century Industrial Britain, with the advent of new printing technologies and the introduction of Royal Mail’s Uniform Penny Post, that the circulation of Valentine’s cards rapidly expanded.
Today, marketing is largely responsible for transforming the celebration of Valentine’s Day into a hugely commercial event, right across the globe. So, with the inevitable madness that ensues at this time of year, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the history of this event and why this special day is associated with true love.
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