The week of February 8th, 2014

The bloody, pagan history of St. Valentine’s Day

By Nico Lang

If you end up at a screening of Fifty Shades of Grey this Valentine’s Day with a roomful of other nervous-looking couples, you have Geoffrey Chaucer to thank.

Before Feb. 14 was a day of society-enforced coupling, it earned a spot in The Canterbury Tales poet’s “The Parlement of Foules,” the first source to reference the day as a time for romantic love: “For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.” Chaucer’s lyrics speak to the older traditions of the holiday, when popular ritual blended with violent religious myth and pagan debauchery. To look at the history of St. Valentine’s Day is to examine the dark side of history itself.

While Chaucer’s version of St. Valentine’s Day likely took place on May 2, which the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers explains is “the saint’s day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa” and “a more likely time for birds to be mating in England,” Feb. 14 allegedly marks the date of a pair of twin decapitations. In Christian lore, there are competing claims to the Valentine’s throne, including the Bishop of Terni and a Roman priest, with whom the holiday is more closely associated. According to Big Think’s Pamela Haag, “the two Valentines seem to have merged into one figure by the 9th century,” as both myths have the 3rd century figures beheaded for their troubles.

The history of these men is anything but romantic. As Haag explains, “Medieval miracle plays based on the Bishop of Terni … show him brutally beaten, bloodied, and decapitated before angels transport him to heaven.” While the story of the Roman Valentine is no less bloody, it plays on common notions of love conquering all, even the military-industrial complex. In the 3rd century, Rome was facing a crisis of empire, with its territory divided into three rival nations, each ready to lay siege to the others. The Roman emperor Claudius II knew that a successful empire needed good warriors, and he felt the way to ensure that was to make sure his men remained bachelors. Thus, legend has it that he outlawed marriage.

To look at the history of St. Valentine’s Day is to examine the dark side of history itself.

While the decision makes a certain amount of sense, it proved vastly unpopular among his subjects, who might have been feeling the stirrings that would later coalesce in the 11th century troubadour notions of courtly love. The Nation’s Samhita Mukhopadhyay reminds us that the “concept of marrying for love rose into prominence” around the 1920s, and “until about the 1960s, people married for financial and social security.” But even if marriage itself might have been a contract rooted in property ownership and securing land rights, the Valentine’s myth speaks to more complicated meanings of love emerging. For St. Valentine, marriage spoke to a higher calling, a sacrament directly given from God.

From here, there are a number of different versions of the St. Valentine myth. In one, the later saint provided aid to those who were imprisoned for breaking the anti-matrimony law, and in another, Valentine was jailed for secretly marrying star-crossed couples vexed with Claudius’ edict. Chivers expounds on the latter myth: “While in jail, he is said to have converted his jailer by healing his blind daughter’s sight. According to another, later version, he is said to have fallen in love with the daughter, sending her a note saying ‘From your Valentine,’ but this is apocryphal.” So little is known about Valentine that almost none of the stories agree, and CNN’s Dean Obeidallah claims that it’s possible he didn’t die for love at all but was put to death for his religious beliefs.

But no matter which adventure you choose to believe, the ending is always the same: bloody martyrdom. Venerating Valentine with a holiday may have been some solace to the figure beyond the grave, but it was also a political move designed to usurp the primacy of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility ceremony celebrated on Feb. 15. Chivers describes it as an “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach,” but it also represented a longer tradition of Christianization, repackaging pagan revelry as Jesus-approved traditions. (See also: Christmas.) NPR’s Arnie Siegel describes Lupercalia like a scene from Caligula: “The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be … coupled up for the duration of the festival—or longer, if the match was right.”

For St. Valentine, marriage spoke to a higher calling, a sacrament directly given from God.

In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius deemed the rites “un-Christian” (you don’t say!) and banned Lupercalia outright, but Valentine’s Day wouldn’t come to be directly associated with romance until the poetry of the aforementioned Chaucer and a little-known writer named William Shakespeare, who speaks of the holiday with adoration in Hamlet: “Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day all in the morning betime, and I a maid at yon window, to be your Valentine!” As the Huffington Post’s Greg Tobin explains, “[H]ere Shakespeare is referring to an English and Italian custom in which single women sat at their windows on Valentine’s Day, believing that the first man they saw would be their true love.”

After the poets helped popularize the Valentine’s Day traditions, superstition remained closely associated with the observation of the holiday. “Rituals emerged in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s to divine future spouses on Valentine’s Day,” Haag writes. “Some young people went to churchyards at midnight to await an omen, but drawing lots was the most common practice of divination.” In the French version of the Valentine lottery, women were expected to prepare a meal for the man brought to them by happenstance, and they would cap off their day together with an evening dance. But if her potential mate was unsatisfied with their chance date, custom bade him to jilt her; the woman’s punishment for her lack of desirability was eight days of solitude, followed by the collective burning of an effigy with all the other rejected spinsters. The practice often led to riots. (And you thought your Valentine’s Day sucked.)

The beginnings of the holiday’s commercialization wouldn’t arrive until the early 19th century, when mass production allowed the widespread circulation of Valentine’s Day cards, which harkened all the way back to the holiday’s founding myths. Valentine allegedly would collect notes from young imprisoned children through the bars of their jail cells, and note-passing was elsewhere a common practice for young British lovers, often made of the traditional paper or lace. While the Massachusetts-born Esther Howland is credited as the “Mother of the American Valentine” for patenting the modern greeting card, it wasn’t until Hallmark got involved in 1913 that the industry became a booming business, pulling in around $14.7 billion dollars in revenue each year.

No matter which adventure you choose to believe, the ending is always the same: bloody martyrdom.

However, Howland’s invention has not been without its detractors. An 1848 editorial in Philadelphia’s Public Ledger deemed Valentine’s cards “an abomination, invented by cunning stationers and booksellers for pecuniary profit, and a desecration of love’s high festival.” The Ledger continued, “What satisfaction is it to a lady to receive a printed declaration, embossed and gilded according to a set pattern, and which is a precise facsimile of fifty thousand others which she knows to have been sent to half the young ladies in the town?” Another takedown referred to Valentine’s cards as “a vile variety of the bribe kind—the most cutting form of dismissal,” derided for what author Leigh Eric Schmidt calls their “alienating sameness.” Schmidt asks, “How could such expressions be possibly sincere, genuine, and heartfelt?”

While critics felt the business of Valentine’s Day would largely suck the marrow out of everything that was transcendent and terrible about the holiday, commercialization was not without its macabre charms. Pamela Haag explains that “the first card manufacturers offered ‘comic’ valentines that engaged in ‘ritualized mockery’ and insult … but mostly lampooned old maids, social poseurs, male dandies who refused to marry, and feminists.” One popular card read, “You ugly, cross, and wrinkled shrew/You advocate of woman’s rights/No man on earth would live with you/For fear of endless fights.” Although Valentine’s Day grew up, the event never forgot its bawdier origins, and popular 1920s greeting card epithets included phrases such as “I would like you for my dictator.”

If this phrase is hardly the Nicholas Sparks version of love sold on shelves today, it’s arguably the more honest version. Throughout the various traditions associated with the saint’s veneration, the holiday has been a vehicle for not only romance but horror—marked by bloodshed, oppression, and punishment. After all, Feb. 14 shares a date with one of the most infamous massacres in history, when Al Capone slaughtered seven men associated with Bugs Moran’s gang, as a power play to control the Chicago mob scene.

Today’s Valentine ritual might seem like a unique form of terror as you scramble to make last-minute dinner reservations or scan for seats in a packed theater of rabid mommy porn readers, but look on the bright side: You’ll get to keep your head when it’s all over.

Illustration by Max Fleishman