The Bloody History of Valentine’s Day

The real and tangled history of St. Valentine is much more interesting than Hallmark’s commercialized day of excess.

02.14.15 11:50 AM ET

There are few holidays as overhyped and exploitative as Valentine’s Day. The financial and emotional inflation that takes place around today means thoughtful gifts are undervalued and overpriced. Expectations run high: if you’re not whisking that special someone away for the weekend you may as well be getting them a toast rack. The situation is just as bad for those “celebrating” the holiday alone. Try looking the Seamless delivery guy in the eye or getting a reasonably priced brunch this weekend, if you can. 

The history of Valentine’s Day isn’t that much better.

One theory about the origins of Valentine’s Day is that it is timed to coincide with the ancient festival of Lupercalia. On this day Roman priests would sacrifice a goat and dog before dividing the goat’s hides into strips , submerging them in the blood of the sacrificed animals, and slapping women and crops with the blood. According to legend, the women would then be paired with randomly selected bachelors for the following year. Clinical, abusive, and demeaning to women? The release of “50 Shades of Grey” today is hardly a coincidence.

All the same, it’s unclear if Lupercalia actually has anything to do with the romantic saint’s days. The first writer to actually associate the two was the nineteenth-century writer Francis Douce, who was commenting on Shakespeare. Early Christians didn’t seem to associate the two. When Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia he didn’t start sending candygrams.

What about the historical St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers? In the first place there are—just for Italy—two candidates for the job. There is a Valentine of Rome and a Valentine of Terni in Umbria. Both men are said to have been martyred in Rome and buried on the Flaminian Way (although some distance apart).  

Two St. Valentines? Wouldn’t that be cheating? Not if they know about each other, you protest. But the historical evidence suggests that neither candidate is actually the Valentine of myth and Hallmark fame. According to aptly-named Franciscan scholar Agostino Amore, we know almost nothing about the Valentine from Terni other than his name. He is mentioned in a fifth-century religious calendar, but never in conjunction with love. The Roman Valentine, Amore argued, was probably an important fourth-century official. While one of them may have been martyred, it is difficult to know anything else about their lives or deaths.

Neither of these men fit the bill for legendary Valentine who was, according to a fifth- or sixth-century story known as the Passion of Marius and Martha, a priest imprisoned and executed by the Emperor Claudius II around 270. In the story he converts his prison guard after curing the guard’s daughter of blindness, so Claudius has him beaten with clubs and beheaded. Over time the story expanded and developed into different versions. As individual churches claimed to have Valentine’s remains they added details to the story. The trouble is that the Valentine that is memorialized in Church tradition is—like men who leave the toilet seat down—the stuff of literary imagination.

If being someone’s Valentine means being one of two people while one’s beloved fixates on a different and way-better-then-you fictional character, then staying in tonight doesn’t sound too bad.

None of this explains why we (collectively) spend billions on cards and candy each year. For Valentine’s scrooges, arguably the man to blame is not a Roman saint but a fourteenth-century English poet. Geoffrey Chaucer—best known for the Canterbury Tales—seems to have invented the idea in his poem The Parliament of Fowls.

The poem is an exploration of politics, cosmology, and erotic love. It ends with nature—an early prototype for OK Cupid—encouraging the birds to choose appropriate mates for themselves on Saint Valentine’s Day. After choosing a partner, the number of birds (ahem) fills “earth and sea, and tree, and every lake” with their huge “crowd.” At least Catholics disappointed by the lack of a historical Valentine can take heart that—unlike Pope Francis—Chaucer wants to see them breed like rabbits; er, birds.

It wasn’t until 1415 that the first Valentine’s Day card was sent (by the then-imprisoned Duke of Orleans), and it was only in 1493 that the legend first emerged that St. Valentine married couples in secret. At that point we have the makings of a romantic saint’s day. But unless you’re an imprisoned French noble or a big Chaucer fan, you’re well within your rights to give this one a miss.