Patheos on the Origins of Valentines Day

Jason Mankey of the Pan Patheos Newsletter has written that Chaucer was the first to mention Valentines Day. I have heard somewhere too that this Saint had something to do with helping lovers, though otherwise the reason for the Saint in association with Venus, Cupid and the arrow through the heart is lost in the mists.

The Saint in an old etching, from WikiMedia.

There were two Valentines allegedly martyred on February 14, but none of their stories originally included any tales of love, and they also weren’t written down for centuries. Like many “saints” of that era they could be entirely fictitious or perhaps simply martyrs who were turned into legend. We have no way of knowing for sure. There were also several other Valentines (perhaps as many as 30!) not related to the person (or persons) whose feast day was celebrated on February 14. Don’t take my word for it here either, we know so little about Saint Valentine that the Catholic Church “discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969.”

The first reference to Valentine’s Day comes from Geoffrey Chaucer (and yes, that Chaucer). When we think of Chaucer today we generally think of his Canterbury Tales but during his lifetime he was widely known as a love poet, with one of those odes to love being especially important in the development of Valentine’s Day. Written sometime between 1370-1380 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls is a poem dedicated to courtly love in the fullness of Spring. It also has the first mention of Valentine’s Day:

And in a clearing on a hill of flowers
Was set this noble goddess, Nature;
Of branches were her halls and her bowers
Wrought according to her art and measure;
Nor was there any fowl she does engender
That was not seen there in her presence,
To hear her judgement, and give audience.

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

Translation by A. S. Kline

Chaucer’s creation of Valentine’s Day was also linked to the beauty of the Earth in early Spring, here personified as a goddess. So while the actual holiday probably can’t be linked with any ancient pagan custom, certainly the imagery invoked here by Chaucer is rather “pagan.” Chaucer’s use of “Valentine’s Day” occurs two more times in the poem, with another reference to the saint of the same name.

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