Valentine’s Day is here. Time for flowers, candy, and cards to celebrate the day traditionally set aside for love. But when did that tradition start?

I wish I could give you a summarized, sanitized, glamourized answer, but I love accuracy too much to do so. The answer is—unclear.

Tradition says the day was named for Valentine, an early Christian saint. Trouble is, the church has records of three martyred priests named Valentine—unless, of course, the same Valentine was involved in more than one of the stories. That could be possible, but no such connection has been officially made. So let me just share with you some of the tales.

All three men lived during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II in the third century. One priest named Valentine was martyred in Africa. He’s not so much connected with our tale. That leaves Valentine, a priest in Rome, and Valentine, Bishop of Terni.

One tradition features a priest named Valentine, who reportedly helped Christians escape Roman persecution. Another story says a priest named Valentine secretly married Roman couples to escape Claudius’s edict banning marriage for soldiers. Military men were more efficient without worries about wives and children, the emperor thought. But….one historian says this edict never existed.

One of these two Valentines, while imprisoned, is said to have 1.) cured his jailer’s daughter of blindness and/or 2.) fallen in love with her. Whatever the reason, he is said to have written her a letter on the eve on his execution, signing it “your valentine.”

Both Valentines are said to have been martyred on Feb. 14 (different years). Since the church usually celebrated a saint’s birth or death, that date became common. Thus, the name, St. Valentine’s Day.

But what about the romantic nature of the holiday? And is the date of the priests’ deaths the only reason to settle it in mid-February?

Some reports link activities of what we know as Valentine’s Day to a Roman festival of Lupercalia—held Feb. 13-15. At that time, pagan priests would soak skins in the blood of a sacrificed goat (symbol of fertility) and with it slap women (and fields) to encourage fertility. Then men would draw women’s names from a bowl for their mate during the following year.

Perhaps an early pope linked this Christian holiday to a pagan one, encouraging the adoption of Christian belief. Some sources say so. Ironically, other sources are vehement that it Wasn’t So. J (It does make a good story, though.)

This all happened in the third and fourth centuries, the early days of the Church. How, then, did Valentine’s Day evolve in the later Medieval world of the British Isles? Was it also linked to early spring mating of birds, a belief popular in many rural areas?

Jack B. Oruch says the pairing of romantic love and Valentine’s Day was first recorded in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382). The poem celebrated Richard II and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement contract in 1381. (They were married at age 15.)

“It says: For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(Trans:”For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”)

The first actual recorded ‘Valentine’ (that has been found, at least) is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who wrote it to his wife about 1416 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Here is the first couple of verses of it:

Perhaps the first ‘found’ written Valentine sentiment was in French, but English wasn’t far behind—and from a lady, too. In the 15th Century (the earliest discovered so far) came Margaret Brewes’ letters to her future husband, John Paston, “my right well-beloved valentine.” They are part of the Paston Letters collection. A link to the entire letter is below.

French (Original)English
Je suis déjà d’amour tanné,                           
Ma très douce Valentinée,
Car pour moi fûtes trop tard née,                                   
Et moi pour vous fus trop tôt né.                            
Dieu lui pardonne qui estrené                            
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année                              
Je suis déjà, etc.              
Ma très douce, etc.         
Bien m’étais suspeçonné,
Qu’aurais telle destinée,    
Ainsi que passât ceste journée,                   
Combien qu’Amours l’eût ordonné.                            
Je suis déjà, etc.
I am already sick of love,       
My very gentle Valentine,
Because for me you were born too late,                    
And I for you was too soon born.                                      
God forgive he who has estranged                               
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already, etc.                   
My very gentle, etc.            
Well might I have suspected,
Having such a destiny,
Thus would have happened this day,                                     
How much that Love would have commanded.
I am already, etc           (“French Poems”)

Well, there you have it. We can’t really be sure exactly for which Valentine the day was named, or even how the romantic element of it persisted and grew over a thousand years, from the time of the Sts. Valentine martyrdoms, to Chaucer’s mention of the day in a romantic context in 1382, to the Duc d’Orleans’ Valentine to his wife and a 15th Century English lady to her betrothed.

Perhaps it just goes to show the enduring need to celebrate the feeling that binds us romantically to another.

But you know, the idea of romantic love goes even further back—to Greek mythology—to that arrow-wielding god Cupid and his mortal lady, Psyche, and a love that transcended time. But that’s another story J

Happy Valentine’s Day. And may we continue to celebrate this timeless tradition of love in our writings.

P.S. I’m not really confident of the English translation above, which was already done. Next time I’ll consult our own Ivy Walker, just to make sure!!

Sources:          for full text of the Brewes’ letter.                                                 (Good sourcing).

Photos from Wikipedia.

And don’t forget to check out the other two Medieval Ladies for a possible Medieval Monday post.




  1. What a wonderful post about a day we romance lovers especially love. I had long known a version of St. Valentine curing the jailer’s daughter’s blindness, but they weren’t lovers. She was a child and he was her friend/mentor (from his jail cell). I did not know of the other Valentines.
    Thank you for all this information, Barb. It’s a gorgeous post. Happy Medieval Monday!

  2. Valentine’s day wouldn’t be the first time the Christian hierarchy chose to celebrate an event on a previous pagan celebration day. I guess they figured they’d get some unwitting converts who liked a good reason to party! You always have interesting information. Thanks for sharing!

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