Who was St Valentine?

By Lisa Marie Griffith

The Saint Valentine most of the world celebrates (the government has banned the sale of Valentine’s cards in Saudi Arabia) on 14 February, is actually not one saint, but possibly three. We know so little about this third century saint that in 1969 Pope Paul VI revoked the day as a religious holiday stating “though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient… a part from his name nothing is known of Saint Valentine”. Too many details about Saint Valentine have been lost to build up a credible account of the saint’s life. Indeed, it is not until ten centuries after his life that we have the first written evidence of his link with love and romance.

We know that there were two or three Valentines who can be linked with the date of 14 February. The first Valentine was a third century priest in Rome, the second was a third century Bishop of Interamna, modern-day Terni. The image above is a depiction of the Bishop overseeing the construction of a Basilica at Terni. It is possible that these two men were one in the same historical figure and that separate cults have grown up around them, one in Rome, one in Terni. Both of these figures were martyred for their faith. We know the least about the third Valentine who was active in Africa. It was said that he was martyred on 14 February. In the fifth century the vatican appointed 14 February to the celebration of one of the Italian Valentines.

Different myths have built up around an Italian third century Saint Valentine. It is believed that he was martyred by  the emperor of Rome, Claudius, for practicing his faith. One story states that Claudius, believing married men made bad soldiers, refused to let young men marry. Valentine married young couples in secret and it was for this crime that he was executed. A thirteenth century hagiography, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints describes an interview which took place between Valentine and Claudius and builds on this story. This account says that after his interview with Claudius, Valentine was imprisoned. The jailer had heard of his good works and brought his blind daughter to see the priest who then healed her.

This particular story has proven to be very popular and the account has been built upon. One story that is often recounted is that Saint Valentine schooled the jailer’s daughter teaching her to use her senses to compensate for her lack of vision. On the night before he was due to be executed Valentine wrote a letter to the girl telling her to keep true to god. When the letter was delivered to her the next day her sight was delivered in full. The letter was signed “From your Valentine” which is supposed to explain why we use this sign off in greeting cards today. A bit too neat for my liking!

The first mention of Valentine with romance is in the thirteenth century and  comes to us from Chaucer who links the day with romance and mating. He says in the Parliament of Foules: ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate’. It is difficult to tell if Chaucer was creating a fictional romantic holiday, and some say that he was not referring to 14 February as birds do not mate at this time.

There seems to be a well known connection with romance and 14 February by the sixteenth century. Shakespeare mentions it in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine”. The tradition of sending verses to your loved one on 14 February was well established by the eighteenth century and in nineteenth century Valentine’s cards were mass-produced.

Remarkably, Saint Valentine’s remains (that the Vatican recognise) reside in the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin. An Irish Carmelite, John Spratt, travelled to Rome in 1835 and impressed Pope Gregory XVI with his preaching. The Pope made a gift of Valentine’s remains along with his relics for his church at home. They included: ‘the blessed body of St Valentine… taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals’.

While no longer a religious holiday, the Saint’s day will be marked in the church today which I am sure will be well attended.

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