The History of Valentine’s Day

This week we’re preparing for Romance’s favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day. Of course, the most romantic of us, our dear Janet, has the day and I’m certain she will handle it with respect and decorum…..ahem….

Most of what we know of St. Valentine’s Day is legend, including the belief that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which, among other things, young men ran naked through the streets striking anyone who came in their way with shaggy thongs, whatever they are. Women purposely got in their way, because it was believed that being struck by naked men wielding shaggy tongs would increase fertility or guarantee safe childbirth.

There were about three Saint Valentines, but legend has it that the one attached to the celebration of love was a second century AD priest . Roman Emperor Claudius II believed unmarried men made better soldiers, so he banned soldiers from marrying. St. Valentine defied the emperor and married soldiers in secret. Valentine was caught and imprisoned, but he continued to do good deeds, like curing the blindness of his jailer’s daughter. He also is said to have penned a note to his sweetheart signed “from your Valentine,” and supposedly was executed on February 14. All that is really known of him is that he was made a saint by the early church.

The first mention of St. Valentine’s Day associated with romantic love comes from Chaucer’s poem, Parlement of Foules, written to honor the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make

Likely Chaucer was referring to a different St. Valentine’s Day, because the engagement took place on May 2. Later scholars assumed Chaucer’s poem meant February 14, but English birds have always been smart enough to wait for warmer weather to mate.

Here’s a fun fact. In 1400, a High Court of Love was established in Paris. It dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. (Happy Valentine’s Day, mesdames)

The French also have the claim to fame of writing the first Valentine. Of course, it was written in London. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincort, the Duke of Orleans wrote a poem to his wife:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné; Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
(Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2)

Ophelia (1601) mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Pepys mentions Valentine’s Day, as well. By this time (mid-1600s) the tradition of giving gifts to ladies seems to have taken hold.

Sending love letters or specially made Valentines became a tradition by the late 1700s, continuing into “our” period, the Regency. In the 1840’s an enterprising American woman, Esther Howland, whose father owned a stationary store, had the idea of mass producing these Valentine’s Day love letters and the Valentine’s Day Card was born. To this day the Greeting Card Association gives an annual Esther Howland Award to the year’s best greeting card visionary.

What are your Valentine’s Day traditions?

*Sources of information: Wikipedia Valentine’s Day and Answers.com

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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