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Valentine’s Day: A Cultural Kaleidoscope of Love, Legends, and Legacies

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It is love that takes centrestage on 14 February, Valentine’s Day. Though the day’s romantic associations have evolved over centuries, the 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer played a pivotal role in linking the day with love and relationships. His poem, ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (1382), presents the earliest known literary connection between the date and love saying, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” Chaucer’s work helped solidify the image of 14 February as a day for romance, paving the way for the traditions we cherish today.

Chaucer may have drawn inspiration from prevailing folklore that described birds beginning to pair on 14 February, halfway through the second month of the year, in preparation for the spring mating season. Perhaps, folklore about birds choosing mates on 14 February may have been influenced by the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, celebrated on 15 February. Dedicated to Lupercus, the god of shepherds, and Faunus, the god of agriculture, this vivacious celebration also honoured the mythical she-wolf who suckled Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus. It was a time of revelry and fertility marked by a curious matchmaking ritual. Young men drew names of young women from a jar, forming temporary couples for the festival’s duration. Many of these pairings reportedly blossomed into marriage, emphasising Lupercalia’s focus on fertility and procreation.

English poet Geoffrey Chaucer played a pivotal role in linking the day with love and relationships.
English poet Geoffrey Chaucer played a pivotal role in linking the day with love and relationships.

However, as Christianity swept through the Roman Empire, the Church sought to Christianize the pagan roots of Lupercalia. Therefore, in the 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I declared 14 February as Saint Valentine’s Day to shift the focus from pagan rituals to Christian ideals of love and romance.

Over time, the traditions of Lupercalia became intertwined with those of Saint Valentine’s Day, resulting in the celebration of love and romance as we recognise it today. Although the original rituals of Lupercalia have largely faded into history, their influence can still be observed in the modern customs and traditions associated with Valentine’s Day.

In ancient Rome, the name Valentine was quite common, and numerous tales are associated with different saints bearing that name. Blurring the lines between truth and legend, two accounts of saints named Valentine exhibit striking similarities, leading to debates over whether these narratives stemmed from a single saint who eventually split into two figures, or if profilers of one individual drew inspiration from the other. One is that of a priest and the other of a bishop; the tales of both are associated with Valentine’s Day, observed on 14 February; and both men were put to death by the 4th-century Roman Emperor Claudius II.   

Claudius’ imperialistic ambitions compelled him to strengthen his military forces by recruiting a significant number of young and capable soldiers for his campaigns. With the belief that unmarried men would be more committed to their military duties, he implemented laws to restrict the marriage of young couples. Unable to reconcile with the injustice of this ruling, Valentine bravely defied the emperor’s orders by clandestinely uniting young lovers in matrimony so that young husbands would not have to go to the war.

Roman Emperor Claudius II of 4th century
Roman Emperor Claudius II of 4th century

As news spread, more and more young couples in love began flocking to him, and the news of the clandestine matrimonial ceremonies reached Claudius. Enraged, Claudius had Valentine arrested and thrown into a damp prison cell, where he would meet his end on 14 February around 270 AD. One popular story depicts him being beaten to death, while others offer different accounts. He is believed to have been laid to rest along the Via Flaminia, and legend has it that Pope Julius I in the 4th century erected a basilica over his grave, commemorating his daring and selfless acts of love and compassion.

Even in the face of his impending execution, the spirit of love and defiance is believed to have burned brightly within him. Some stories narrate a tender affection blossoming between him and a jailor’s daughter, even culminating in her miraculous healing from blindness. Before his execution, he is believed to have written a heartfelt love letter to her, signing it, ‘Your Valentine.’ Though these narratives lack historical confirmation, they add a layer of romanticism depicting him as a beacon of hope and a symbol of the power of love and compassion in the face of oppression.

Alongside the well-known narrative of Saint Valentine, another tale, shrouded in historical uncertainty, recounts the tale of Bishop Valentine of Terni in central Italy. According to legend, during a conversation with the Roman Judge Asterius about faith, Valentine boldly asserted the power of Jesus. Infuriated by Valentine’s assertion and seeking to test his faith, Asterius presented his blind daughter to him, challenging Valentine to restore her vision in the name of Jesus. Promising to do anything for Valentine if he succeeded, Asterius watched in amazement as Valentine placed his hands upon the girl’s eyes and miraculously restored her sight. Overwhelmed by the miracle, Asterius not only repented his actions but also, at Valentine’s suggestion, renounced his faith in the Roman gods and embraced Christianity along with his family and forty-four-member household.

Valentine’s efforts to spread Christian faith among the Romans drew the ire of certain Roman officials, leading to his arrest and subsequent presentation before Claudius. Initially, Claudius took a liking to Valentine, but tensions arose when Valentine persisted in urging the emperor to embrace the Christian faith. Enraged by Valentine’s steadfastness, Claudius had him arrested and forced him to renounce his faith. However, Valentine remained resolute, enduring torture and ultimately facing execution on 14 February 269 AD. According to legend, Valentine was laid to rest along the Via Flaminia, mirroring the fate of his namesake.

Dedicated to Lupercus, the God of shepherds, and Faunus, the God of agriculture, this vivacious celebration of Lupercalia also honoured the mythical she-wolf who suckled Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus
Dedicated to Lupercus, the God of shepherds, and Faunus, the God of agriculture, this vivacious celebration of Lupercalia also honoured the mythical she-wolf who suckled Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus

The origins of Valentine’s Day on 14 February are still veiled in mystery. While some narratives link it to Saint Valentine, historical evidence remains inconclusive. Pope Gelasius I established a feast day on 14 February in 496 AD, although its original purpose was not directly connected to Saint Valentine. Some theories suggest that it was intended either to replace the Roman festival Lupercalia or to honour multiple martyrs.

The legacy of Saint Valentine remains strong in Italy, evident in numerous churches, villages, and towns bearing his name. Every year on the Sunday closest to 14 February, engaged couples from across Italy flock to the Basilica di San Valentino in Terni for a special ‘Valentine’s Blessing’ ceremony. This historic basilica is believed to house the relics of the saint beneath the main altar.

During the Middle Ages, the veneration of Saint Valentine began extending beyond Italy, reaching Central and Northern Europe. Several popular Valentine’s Day traditions, like exchanging love notes and tokens, originated in these regions during this period.

Chaucer’s mention of 14 February as a day for birds to choose their mates contributed to the growing association of the date with love. This literary reference, combined with other factors played a significant role in the evolution of Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance. This evolution of Valentine’s Day progressed intertwining with the concept of ‘courtly love,’ a prominent theme in medieval romance literature.

Medieval romance stories often depicted unrequited love for an unattainable figure, usually a noblewoman already married.  The story of Lancelot and Guinevere, part of the Arthurian legend, is a good example of the typical courtly love. Lancelot, a knight renowned for his bravery and chivalry, becomes enamoured with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. Despite Guinevere’s marriage to Arthur, Lancelot’s admiration for her grows into a passionate and illicit love affair. Their relationship is characterized by secrecy, longing, and devotion, as Lancelot pledges his loyalty and service to Guinevere despite the societal taboo and the risk of consequences, including potential conflict with King Arthur.

The legend of Lancelot and Guinevere
The legend of Lancelot and Guinevere

While not all Valentine’s Day narratives directly mirror the theme of unattainable love, traces of it persist in some modern interpretations. Ideas of forbidden love, societal barriers, and the longing for a desired yet seemingly inaccessible partner resonate across centuries, though in varying contexts.

Both courtly love and Valentine’s Day celebrations emerged within societies characterized by rigid social hierarchies. Marriage decisions were frequently influenced by social status and familial alliances, limiting individual romantic choices. Understanding this context deepens our appreciation of courtly love and Valentine’s Day. Exploring how these societal structures shaped depictions of love, whether through the yearning knights of medieval literature or the challenges confronted by contemporary couples navigating societal norms, enhances our understanding of how cultural expressions of love evolve.

Though the origins of Valentine’s Day remain a mystery, its transformation into a celebration of love and romance is intricately linked to historical events and cultural influences. From Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetic verses to the martyrdom of Saint Valentine(s), the day is rich with stories of devotion, defiance, and compassion. As ancient Roman festivities and medieval courtly love customs merged into today’s traditions, Valentine’s Day remains a poignant moment for expressing affection. Whether through gift-giving or pondering tales of forbidden love, Valentine’s Day, a cultural kaleidoscope of love, legends, and legacies serves as a reminder of love’s enduring significance throughout history and across different cultures.

All Images: Google 

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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