Yes, it’s that time again; St. Valentine’s Day is (almost) upon us, so in the manner of a public service announcement we are issuing this post as a gentle nudge to all forgetful partners (you’ve got a week to go). But where did this feast day originate from? And how, with an estimate of 1 billion cards sent each year, did it become such a popular and profitable celebration?
It is likely that the Valentine’s Day we know today evolved from a Pagan fertility festival celebrated in ancient Rome on the 13-15th February called Lupercalia. At this festival men would strip naked and whip young ladies with strips of goat or dog hide. This practice was said to improve fertility for the coming year… or that’s what they told the young ladies anyway. Another festival favourite was kind of like an Ancient Blind Date where, according to legend, the young women of the city placed their names into a large urn. The city’s bachelors would then choose a name each of who their Valentine’s date would be for the year. In the unforgettable dulcet tones of Cilla Black: they had a lorra lorra laughs, but did they see each other again? Apparently so, with many of the matches apparently ending in marriage.
In the later Roman period, the festival of Lupercalia was deemed un-Christian and eventually outlawed, replaced by – you guessed it – St Valentine’s Day. Pronounced as a Christian feast day by Pope Gelasius in about AD 496, this entirely new festival, absolutely nothing like the old one, was also celebrated on February the 14th. Go figure! But who was the great St Valentine who inspired such a day of love? Well truth is no one really knows. One account describes him as a temple priest who was beheaded by Claudius II for helping couples to wed (marriage for young men had been outlawed with the aim of producing better soldiers). Another story is that Valentine was a priest killed helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. All well and good, but perhaps our favourite story is that Valentine was the author of the very first Valentine’s card when he fell in love with a young woman who visited him during his confinement, possibly the jailor’s daughter, signing his note ‘From your Valentine.’ Aaahh…
In 1382 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called the ‘Parlement of Foules’. This is believed to be the first written reference as Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers. In celebration of the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia he writes “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” This refers to the common belief at the time that February 14th was the first day of mating season for birds, when males would do their best to woo their female birds enough to convince them to mate with them. Some things never change.
The oldest known Valentine’s card written in English dates to 1477 and is housed in the British Museum. This was from Margery Brews to her “right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire.” Margery writes how her mother is trying to persuade her father to increase her dowry, but if John truly loves her he will still marry her anyway. By the mid-18th century it was common for lovers and friends to pass handwritten noted on Valentine ’s Day to show their affection for those close to them. ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ was published in 1797 to provide guidance on appropriate rhymes and messages and, as postal services became more affordable the all-important anonymity became a possibility. The early 19th century saw the mass producing of cards which has now transpired into the billion pound commercial celebration we recognise today.
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe