Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Obscure Catholic Saint's Day!

The skull of St. Valentine.
Poor St. Valentine. He never asked for it. He never asked that his name come to be associated with cheap candy and heart-shaped mylar balloons. I'm pretty sure he would have never guessed - not in a million years - that he would become synonymous with romantic crushes, red foil heart decorations and free hug coupons. What a horrid fate.

All we know about him is that he was buried along the Via Flaminia (an ancient Roman road which led from the city to the Adriatic Sea) on February 14th. We're not even positive about the year, but it was likely during the third century. His name does not appear in the earliest known Roman martyrology (the list of Christian martyrs from in and around the city of Rome) which was published in 354, but he was added to the Roman calendar of saints in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who remarked that he was to be commemorated as one of the many saints "...whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." According to pious tradition, there were actually two individuals who are both celebrated as martyrs on February 14th: a priest from Rome and a bishop from Terni who bore the same name. The two lived about about 50 years apart but both died as martyrs for the Faith during the third century. Each was buried after his martyrdom in a grave along the Via Flaminia, just at different distances from the city. But it is the former, who has come to be known as St. Valentine of Rome, that is usually considered the St. Valentine.

Throughout the years, at least seven known saints have also shared this name, though they have different feast days. But the one commemorated today continues to be remembered most widely. Despite the rumors you might have heard, he is still found on the Catholic Church's official list of saints, but because so little is known about him, his feast day was removed from the Church's General Calendar in 1969. Local calendars (those of dioceses, etc.), however, are still permitted to commemorate him on February 14th. There are many churches dedicated to this and other saints named Valentine (we'll touch on one in particular a little later). And one church in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, displays what is believed to be the skull of St. Valentine (the Roman martyr/priest).

This day is one of the more obvious examples of Catholic origins of another of our popular celebrations. "But what about the romantic part? How does that fit in?" you might be asking. How did the name of a Christian martyr(s) become entangled with notions of love and fidelity (at best) or a raunchy money-making holiday (at worst)? Well, it seems we owe this to two things: the fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and a case of mistaken identity.


In 1382, Chaucer published a poem honoring the first anniversary of the engagement of England's King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. From history, we know that an agreement for the engagement was signed on May 2, 1381. Chaucer's poem, entitled Parlement of Foules, commemorates the date of the king's engagement in the following line:

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

Or, in modern English: "For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate." For years, it was assumed by Chaucer's readers that February 14th was the day he was referring to, the day on which birds mated -- a good day for an engagement. Other poets and authors echoed the supposedly "ancient tradition" of St. Valentine's Day being a day especially suited for romantic pursuits. In time, it became hardened custom in western Europe. It was not until the 19th century in England that "valentines" began to be exchanged on a large scale but the engines of capitalism and consumerism powered a virtual revolution in the celebration of St. Valentine's Day in the 20th century as valentines (and candy, and flowers, and gifts, and...) came to be the norm rather than the exception.

Throughout the years, legends sprung up and were attached to St. Valentine's already largely-invented hagiography. One story, which was widely disseminated after it showed up in the popular Butler's Book of Saints (1894) even had the soon-to-be martyred Valentine sending a letter from his jail cell just before his death. Get it? The "first valentine." How cute.

But all of the attempts at connecting love and courtship to a saint whose feast day is on February 14th is based on a misunderstanding of Chaucer's words. You see, Chaucer was not referring to February 14th. Think about it: birds were, of course, very unlikely to be mating in the middle of February. But they were likely to be mating on May 2nd - the actual date of King Richard and Anne's engagement. And, May 2nd just happens to be the feast day of another St. Valentine - a fourth century bishop of Genoa, Italy (and one of the many saints who share this name).

Soooo..... Valentine's Day, as far as being a "romantic" holiday, really is every bit as invented as you might have suspected. Of course it is a good thing to show your significant other that you love them. Hopefully, it is apparent every day, but it is nice to have an excuse (even a made-up one) to celebrate romantic love - it is, after all, a great thing. And if, by chance, you completely forgot to get your favorite somebody flowers or a card today, having read this post, you can now convincingly argue that this whole day is based on a big old misunderstanding of a fourteenth century poet, and that you've got everything planned for the real St. Valentine's Day (the one Chaucer intended)... on May 2nd. Yeah.... Good luck with that.