Who was St Valentine and why do we celebrate him on February 14?

Who was Saint Valentine? Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane

The quick answer is: we don’t know. In fact, it’s entirely possible that history took a number of different martyrs called ‘Valentine’ and smooshed them all together to create one big Saint of Love.

It’s as if the Disney movies about Rapunzel and Pinocchio got lost in the mists of time and future generations talked of one single character – with long blonde hair and a big nose.

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But which one was the real Saint Valentine?

Our Prime Suspect was a priest in Rome (‘Valentine of Rome’) in the third century in the time of Emperor Claudius II.

Claudius was having problems recruiting soldiers for his army. It was thought that Roman citizens didn’t want to leave their wives and children to go and fight for the Empire. Quick fix: the Emperor banned all weddings.

Enter Valentine the priest. I have started to conduct weddings for Christian couples.

Inevitably, Valentine of Rome was hauled before the Imperial Court for breaking the law and when asked what he thought about the gods of the day (Jupiter and Mercury) he replied: “They are miserable and have spent their lives in corruption and crime.”

This did not go down well. But Emperor Claudius was intrigued and was keen to hear more about this quirky little religious sect: Christianity.

Problem was – the Mayor of Rome was furious. So, they called in a judicial tie-breaker – Judge Asterios.

This judge had a wee girl who was blind, and when Asterios heard Valentine preach that Jesus was ‘The Light of the World”, he challenged Valentine to bring that divine light to his daughter’s unseeing eyes.

Valentine placed his hands over the child’s face, said a prayer – and the child was cured. And Asterios promptly converted.

What’s the old saying: “No good deed goes unpunished”… Valentine found that he had a new problem: if word got out that an obscure, cultish priest could perform miracles and the mighty Emperor Claudius could not, then how did that make the Emperor look? Not good. Thus, on 14th February, around the year 268 AD, Valentine of Rome was beheaded.

And what about the other candidates for The Real Valentine?

If you hire a car in Rome and drive north-east for 65 miles and you ask: “Where was St Valentine from?”, then the immediate reply will be: “Why – from here, of course!” You’ll be in the town of Terni in Umbria.

This Umbrian St Valentine was a bishop (‘Valentine of Terni’) who visited Rome in the time of Emperor Gallienus. During that visit, Valentine converted a number of young students to Christianity.

One of the students was the son of the Roman Prefect – the official responsible for Law and Order. A Prefect by the (highly oxymoronic) name of ‘Furiosus Placidus’. The Prefect promptly had Valentine arrested and executed on 14th February.

But it has also been suggested that the Church’s chosen date for The Feast of St Valentine was imposed not to commemorate the demise of the various Valentines – it was chosen for a different reason entirely: to wipe out a pre-existing pagan celebration: the Lupercalia .

It’s hard for the modern mind to fathom the Lupercalia.

If you can imagine a cross between the tv shows ‘Love Island’ and ‘Naked Attraction’ with a dash of ‘It’s a Knockout’, then we’re getting there.

Celebrated annually from 13th to 15th February, the ritual involved: (1) meeting at a cave; (2) sacrificing a goat and a dog; (3) skinning the animals and using their fur to create ‘shaggy thongs’; (4) running around (anti-clockwise) waving the shaggy thongs about; (5) lining up women and hitting them with the shaggy thongs to make them fertile.

In 391 AD, the Catholic Church banned all non-Christian festivals, but it’s not clear if the Lupercalia survived this and was driven underground (and now, bizarrely, academics are suggesting that it was the Lupercalia that spawned the Irish word ‘leprechaun’… ).

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

It might have been because St Valentine of Rome helped lovers to marry, or it might have been a distant memory of naked men in shaggy thongs, but the more accepted theory of why Valentine’s Day came to represent Love is more to do with the work of the seminal English author and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.

At some point in the late fourteenth century, Chaucer – best known today for his Canterbury Tales – composed a 700-line dream-poem entitled ‘Parliament of Fowls’. In the poem, a group of birds gather together in early spring – on ‘seynt valentines day’ – to choose their mates for the year. Thus came the idea that Valentine’s Day was a day for lovers. Chaucer’s idea took off and became widespread.

‘From Your Valentine…’

The origin of the phrase – according to some versions – is sweet and touching – and not romantic at all.

On the night before he was executed, Valentine of Rome wrote to the girl whose sight he had restored, and he signed off: “From your Valentine.”

If we move from the question of who was St Valentine and on to the question of where is St Valentine, then it’s still complicated.

The problem with being a saint is that everybody wants a piece of you – literally.

There are various places that claim to have (at least a bit of) the bones of St Valentine: The Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, The Basilica of St Mary in Cosmedin, also in Rome and – wait for it – Blessed John Duns Scotus Parish Church – in the Gorbals in Glasgow, where a wee gingerbread-looking box holds the section of him that used to be somewhere between his elbow and his wrist.

It’s often said that Love is Blind (although John Lennon once reputedly remarked: ‘Love is deaf.’ It’s not known if he had just heard Yoko singing in the shower…) and I suppose we should leave the last word to the critical (but forgiving) eye of that great lyricist, Lorenz Hart and ‘My Funny Valentine’:

‘Is your figure less than Greek/Is your mouth a little weak?

When you open it to speak – are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me/Not if you care for me

Stay, little Valentine, stay!

Each day is Valentine’s Day…”

And for those of you who buy and send a card this year – the prediction is more than 25 million cards in the United Kingdom alone – may your heart ever be filled with the dream of love.

And may your thong ever be shaggy.

Ross Macfarlane QC is an Advocate & writer. His novel “Edward Kane and the Parlor Maid Murderer” is published by Scotland Street Press.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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