The Feast of Saint Valentine
Possibly the most famous non-Biblical Saint, Valentine was a priest in Rome who was martyred in the year 269 when he defied the Emperor’s order to cease performing marriages. He was beaten to death with clubs, and then his body was decapitated. Two centuries later, Pope Gelasius I added him to the calendar of saints and established his feast on the day of his death, 14 February. According to legend, Valentine was interrogated by Emperor Claudius himself, and both men tried to convert the other to their own religion. The night before his execution, Valentine supposedly cured blindness in his jailor’s daughter, writing her a note which he signed ‘From your Valentine.’
The association with romantic love began in the Middle Ages with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. This was an epic poem written to celebrate the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia in which, on Valentine’s Day, birds of every species came together in a parliament to find mates for each other. The idea was inspired by the arrival of mating season for birds, in early Spring, and their singing to attract potential partners.
This nobil emperesse, ful of grace,Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlament of Foules
Bad euery foul to take his owene place,
As they were wont alwey, from yer to yere,
Seynt Valentines day to stondyn there.
The connection between Saint Valentine and love grew stronger in Britain over the years, with regional customs appearing as the feasting died out. In Norfolk, a character known as Jack Valentine would knock on the back doors of houses and leave treats for the household’s children. In Derbyshire, if a girl were not visited by her love on Valentine’s Day, she would be deemed dusty, and her family would brush her down with a broom. In various parts of the country, Valentine’s Eve was also acknowledged. Lovers swapped gifts on the night of 13 February, to be opened in the morning. In some places, Father and Mother Valentine would distribute gifts then evaporate into the air.
Whilst the original purpose of the celebration, and the feasting, have long passed, the sentiment of giving gifts remains, following Valentine’s legendary gift of sight to the blind, and the note he sent with it.