valentine who?

Thunk on or about 9th February 2005

In a previous thinks, written just before Valentine's Day 2004, I mused briefly as to who St Valentine was. Well, a small amount of research shows the answer is not simple, nor is the choice of 14th February as the Saint's Day.

Who was he?

It turns out that there are three possible martyrs who might be the St Valentine:

  1. Valentine, priest of Rome, executed c. 270 A.D., buried on the Via Flaminia
  2. Valentine, bishop of Interamna (modern Termi), executed c. 270 A.D., buried on the Via Flaminia
  3. Valentine, who "suffered in Africa with a number of companions"

Since sod all is known about V3 we might as well remove him from contention as he isn't very interesting. Astute readers will have noticed that V1 and V2 are virtually identical. Although we have a different set of Acta for each of them, these are sufficiently late as to have no historical value.

The hot money is therefore on a combined V1/V2. Most likely he was beheaded in 269 A.D. during the reign of Claudius II. There is a story that he was executed for performing illegal marriage ceremonies for Claudius' soldiers but this may well be a back construction.

So, basically, there was a priest of some sort, who lived somewhere in Italy, sometime in the latter half of the 3rd century, who did something to upset the Emperor, and lost his head. A romantic story, no?

Why 14th February?

There are two main competing theories as to why St Valentine is celebrated on 14th February. We may refer to these as the "bird" theory and the "wolf" theory.

Every foul cometh

In medieval England and France it was generally believed that birds chose their mates on 14th February. To quote Chaucer's Parliament of Foules:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

Chaucer's spelling was notoriously bad (in Australia we would say Parliament of Fools) but he captured the essence of the belief that what applies to birds should apply, mutato mutandis to people. I'm not completely convinced by this explanation. It sounds (if you will pardon the expression) a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Did St Valentine follow the birds, or the birds follow St Valentine?

Beware the Ides of February

The ides of February was the date of the Lupercalia - the feast of Juno Februata - one of many Roman excuses for an erotic romp and a feast. Supporters of the Lupercalia theory suggest that the church created Valentine's Day in an (ultimately successful) attempt to take over the festival.

The theory is certainly plausible - the Christian church was expert at taking over the pagan festivals - although there is no particular evidence for it in this case.

However, since subverting pagan festivals is a well-known church conspiracy, and since lack of evidence is a well-known feature of conspiracies, it follows that this must be the correct explanation.

Other Interesting Things on February 14th

Historians have calculated that only about 0.27% of interesting things occur on February 14th. Here are seven of them:

1779  Captain James Cook speared to death by unfriendly locals in Hawaii.
1803  Moses Coats of Downington Pennsylvania patents the apple parer
1876  Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray each attempt to patent the telephone. Bell wins as his application is lodged a few hours earlier.
1929  St Valentine's Day Massacre: Al Capone has seven members of Bugs Moran's gang hit at a warehouse in North Clark Street, Chicago.
1929  Alexander Fleming introduces the new anti-bacterial wonder-drug penicillin
1966  Australia changes to decimal currency
1990  Voyager 1 takes the first photograph of the solar system from the outside

Happy Valentine's Day

Whoever he was.


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