We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day. But who is St. Valentine exactly and why his name synonymous with love and romance? The patron saint of love has been identified with two early Christians: a priest martyred in Rome around 269 and buried on the Flaminian Way north of the city and a bishop of Terni, in Umbria, who was also executed in Rome. Some seventeenth century sources assert they are the same person. Modern experts believe the priest-martyr to be the real Valentine. The name “Valentine” derived from “valens” (worthy, strong, powerful) was a popular name in Late Antiquity. At least eleven other saints are named Valentine.
The reasons for his association with lovers is also disputed. There are many legends associated with this saint, none of them based on fact. One is that Valentine, a priest, going against the emperor’s order, secretly married couples so their husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. The legend claims that soldiers were sparse in those day so this was a huge inconvenience for the emperor. Another legend is that he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter of blindness. On the day of his execution, he left a note for her signed “Your Valentine.” A possibility for his association with lovers derives from a centuries old belief that birds choose their mates on February 14. Another one is that it is a survival from the Roman festival of Lupercalia held in mid-February to secure fertility and keep evil away. It was once thought that Valentine’s Day was created to supersede this pagan feast. But this theory has been dismissed by modern scholars. Many of the current legends were invented in the fourteenth century, most notably Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle, when February 14 first became associated with romantic love.
What we do know for certain is that troubled lovers have invoked him since medieval times and that the custom of sending a Valentine’s Day card to a chosen partner, first commercialized in the U.S. in the 1840s, has become a major industry.