We associate February 14 with romantic love. Valentine’s Day is a day for sweethearts. But who was St. Valentine and why is he associated with lovers? It appears that Valentine’s Day is the invention of one man: Geoffrey Chaucer.
In his poem The Parliament of Fowls, written c. 1381, Chaucer writes (lines 309–310):
For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.1
(For this was Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate.)
Some believe that this poem was written to commemorate the wedding of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The agreement arranging the marriage was signed on 2 May 1381, which is the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa. But whether or not Chaucer wrote the poem for this occasion has not been firmly established.2
There is no known association between Valentine and romantic love before Chaucer penned this poem, but it quickly became a tradition afterward for young people to draw lots on the day to choose a special someone, special for that day at least. The first recorded use of valentine to refer to such a person appears by 1450. And by 1553 the word was being applied to the piece of paper on which that person’s name was written and drawn by chance. By around 1610, valentine was being used to mean a gift given to a lover on that day.3
So who was Valentine? There are several candidates, about which almost nothing is known. St. Valentine of Rome, whose feast day is 14 February and who is usually associated with the holiday, is pretty much a mystery. He was an early Christian martyr, but other than the fact that he was a martyred priest from Rome nothing is known about him. There was another Valentine, bishop of Terni in Italy, who is associated with the day, and there is yet another Valentine who was martyred in Africa about which nothing more is known. The aforementioned Valentine of Genoa was bishop of that city, dying of natural causes c. 307.
Some give the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on 15 February as the origin of the modern holiday. Lupercalia was held in honor of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus and the celebration was associated with fertility. But there is nearly a thousand years and a thousand miles between the fall of Rome and Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. The similarity of the dates is more likely mere coincidence.
So it seems pretty clear that Chaucer is the first person known to associate the saint with romantic love. He may have done so in order to celebrate the marriage of the king, or he may simply have done it to bring some life into the dreary mid-winter season.
1Riverside Chaucer, Larry D. Benson, ed., 3d ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, p. 389.
2Riverside, p. 384.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton