Blood, Whipping, and Chaucer: The Truth Behind St. Valentine’s Day

The ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia in mid-February, usually from the 13th-15th, in an effort to avert evil spirits and purify the city. The celebration started in a cave known as Lupercal where, tradition said, Roman founders Romulus and Remus were nursed by she-wolf Lupa. Inside the cave lay an altar, where drunk, naked men would sacrifice a goat and a dog, skin the animals, then proceed from the cave, located on Palatine Hill, down to the streets of Rome and into the Forum. Along the way, eager women waited, hoping to be whipped by the skins, believing the touch of the hides would bring them fertility.

It was during this festival that Emperor Claudis II executed a man known as Valentine in the 3rd century A.D. Although the name is now synonymous with love, little is actually known about the man himself–both his true identity or his deeds. In fact, there is speculation that Valentine wasn’t even one man but several, which could explain why the stories of his actions are so varied.

In some legends, he was executed for refusing to deny Christ before the Emperor. Before his execution, however, he restored sight and hearing to the daughter of his jailer. The name Valentine, rather than being associated with romantic love, was actually a derivative of the word “valor.” Another variation claims he was executed for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods but still chose to heal his jailer’s daughter, leaving a note to her prior to his death signed “Your Valentine.”

More traditional stories maintain Valentine was arrested and killed for secretly marrying Christian couples in Rome, a severe crime during a time when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government.

Whatever the case, after Christianity was adopted by Rome in 313 A.D., a move was made to purge the pagan rituals of the past–including Lupercalia. The martyrdom of Valentine around the same time became the perfect substitute for a holiday, although early celebrations became more a merging of the two than a replacement. Many of the rituals remained the same and, although their may have been less drunkenness, nakedness, and whipping, the day was still associated with love and fertility.

It wasn’t until the 14th century when the idea of “romantic love” took hold, thanks in part to Chaucer and his poem ‘Parlement of Foules,’ written as a dream vision and containing one of the earliest references to St. Valentine’s Day as a “romantic” day for lovers:

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”

Later, Shakespeare enforced the tradition, referring to the meeting of lovers on St. Valentine’s Day in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”

Today, Valentine’s Day is big business, with the holiday raking in almost $20 billion in sales, including candy, cards, and jewelry. It’s a time of romance and love, of celebrating relationships and the gift of togetherness. No matter the truth of his identity or deeds, people around the world celebrate the legend of St. Valentine for the hope his “love conquers all” mentality brings.

And there’s very little whipping involved.

I think.

 

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