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The origins of St. Valentine’s Day, or of the concept that a St. Valentine is the patron of lovers, are hazy.
There were several Christian Valentines who became martyrs and were canonized for their religious steadfastness during torture or for miraculously healing the sick. The most likely candidates who could lay claim to being the St. Valentine are either a bishop of Terni or a Roman priest; both lived in the third century and both were apparently executed on the 14th February. These days, the Vatican seems to favour the bishop of Terni. However, researchers still haven’t found any proof that either saint was in any way revered as the patron of love. The Roman festival of Lupercalia might have contributed to the myth. It was celebrated around the 14th February, and it was custom that the names of young women were drawn from a box by young men; these couples would stay together for the remainder of the festivities, and, if the match was right, for longer.
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) was probably the first to make a direct connection between St. Valentine and love, courtship and birds, recurring symbols for love, in his poem The Parliament of Fowls: “For this was on seynt Valentynes day,/ Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make [mate].” or in the Legend of Good Women in which birds sing, “Blessed be Seynt Valentyn, / For on his day I chees yow to be myn, / Withouten repentyng, myn herte swete!” Numerous poets from then on would also promote St. Valentine as the patron of lovers. John Lydgate (1370-1449/50) starts his poem The Floure of Curtesye with the following verse:
“In Feverier, whan the frosty moone
Was horned, ful of Phebus firy lyght,
And that she gan to reyse her streames sone,
Saynt Valentyne, upon thy blisful nyght
Of dutie whan glad is every wight,
And foules chese, to voyde her olde sorowe,
Everyche his make, upon the next morowe,”
Over the next few centuries, poets across Europe spread the idea of the lovers’ saint, and by the 17th and 18th centuries, it had become tradition among young people in Britain to decide their valentines by drawing lots on the eve before St. Valentine’s Day – quite similar to Lupercalia. This was not only a popular form of entertainment, but was also often seen as a sort of prediction of their future spouse. Seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) also recounts the custom at court to give, often luxurious, presents to the lady or gentleman that one had drawn.
At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, ‘valentine writers’ had become all the rage. Alongside general letter writing- and etiquette books, they formed their own genre, advising people on phrases and poems to send to their valentines. Thomas Sabine’s The Complete Valentine’s Writer; or, The Young Men and Maidens Best Assistant, published ca. 1783, for example, proved a huge success. Creating original verses became also very fashionable as they were seen to be more pure and straight from the heart. With the arrival of the nation-wide ‘penny post’ (officially called Uniform Penny Postage) on 10th January 1840, sending Valentine’s Day card became affordable for almost everybody and hence, very popular. In 1841 alone, 400,000 cards were sent in Britain, and by 1871 the number had tripled. The Victorians would often create their own cards from a variety of materials such as lace, silk flowers, seashells or ribbons, rather than buying them ready-made in the shops as it is common today. However, the mass production of purchasable valentines has its roots in the Victorian age. During the 19th century, using the ‘language of flowers’ was a fashionable way of communicating amorous feelings in a – more or less – covert way; so adding different kinds of flowers to a card was common. Roses, for example, would represent ‘love’, bluebells meant ‘constancy’ and forget-me-nots ‘true love’.
The wood engravings in the School of Art collection predominantly demonstrate the thrill and anticipation that St. Valentine’s Day evoked in many Victorians. There are images of young women creating cards on the night before; of girls excitedly waiting for the morning post to arrive; and of the delight of receiving and reading the valentines. Cheeky Cupid, rather than a demure saint, is the culprit; he is usually depicted causing havoc on the day, sharpening his arrows to fire them at unsuspecting humans or playing ‘postmaster’ for love letters. In one illustration, he can be seen rowing through the ‘sea of matrimony’ into which hapless men are tumbling after having been charmed by pretty girls or caught by husband-hunting ladies.
For us a peculiar custom was the sending of ‘offensive valentines’. These would, for example, mercilessly ridicule a lady’s or gentleman’s appearance or lousy dress sense. Fortunately, this practice has all but died out whereas the popularity of sending love letters and giving presents on the 14th of February continues today. As the writer Charles Lamb (1775-1834) remarked so aptly: ”A Valentine – who would not have a Valentine?”
The Aberystwyth University, School of Art’s collection of Victorian periodical wood engravings
Burns, Paul. Favourite Patron Saints. ed. Paul Burns. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aber/detail.action?docID=436284.
Gray, Douglas. “Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. May 2012. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5191, accessed 2 Feb 2017]
Knighton, S. “Pepys, Samuel (1633–1703).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. Sept 2015. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21906, accessed 2 Feb 2017]
Oruch, Jack B. “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February.” Speculum 56.3 (1981): 534-65. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-45. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
Swaab, Peter. “Lamb, Charles (1775–1834).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15912, accessed 2 Feb 2017]