Saturday, February 14, 2015

Medieval Valentines?

by Barbara Bettis

Valentine’s Day is here. Time for flowers, candy, send cards to celebrate the day traditionally set aside for love. But was Valentine's Day celebrated in the Middle Ages? Sort of.

When did that tradition start?

St. Valentine of Terni and his disciples
I wish I could give you a summarized, sanitized, glamourized answer, but I love accuracy too much to do so. The answer is—unclear. 
Tradition says the day was named for Valentine, an early Christian priest martyred (this is true) for his part in—and that’s where the story become murky. The church records three Valentines, all living around the third century during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. One priest Valentine was martyred in Africa. He’s not so much connected with our tale. That leaves Valentine, a priest in Rome, and Valentine, Bishop of Terni.
One story says a priest named Valentine helped Christians escape Roman persecution. Still  a another story says a priest named Valentine secretly married Roman couples to escape Claudius’s edict banning marriage for soldiers (they were better military men if they didn’t worry about wives and children, the emperor thought. However, one historian says this edict never existed.)
One of these two Valentines, while imprisoned, is said to have 1.) cured his jailer’s daughter of blindness and/or 2.) fallen in love with her. Whatever the reason, he is said to have written her a letter on the eve on his execution, signing it “your valentine.”
Both Valentines are said to have been martyred on Feb. 14 (different years). Since the church usually celebrated a saint’s birth or death, that date became common.
Some reports link Valentine’s Day to a Roman festival of Lupercalia—held Feb. 13-15. At that time, pagan priests would soak skins in the blood of a sacrificed goat (symbol of fertility) and with it slap women (and fields) to encourage fertility. Then men would draw women’s names from a bowl for their mate during the following year.
Did an early pope, hoping to link Christian holidays to pagan ones thus encouraging the spread of Christian belief, declare celebration of St. Valentine’s Day coincide with that pagan festival? Some sources say so. Ironically, other sources are vehement that it Wasn’t So. J (It does make a good story, though.)
This post is on Medieval Valentines, and this all happened in the 4th Century, the early days of the Church. How, then, did Valentine’s Day become commonly accepted ? Was it also linked to early spring mating of birds, a belief popular in many rural areas?

Jack B. Oruch says the links of romantic love and Valentine’s Day was first recorded in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382). The poem celebrated Richard II and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement contract in 1381. (They were married at 15.)

Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve (1412)
“It says: For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(Trans:"For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.")”

The first actual recorded ‘Valentine’ (that has been found, at least) is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who wrote it to his wife about 1416 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of England after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Here is the first couple of verses of it:

French (Original)
Je suis déjà d’amour tanné,    Ma très douce Valentinée, Car pour moi fûtes trop tard née,                                    Et moi pour vous fus trop tôt né.                             Dieu lui pardonne qui estrené                             M’a de vous, pour toute l’année                              
Je suis déjà, etc.               Ma très douce, etc.          Bien m’étais suspeçonné, Qu’aurais telle destinée,     Ainsi que passât ceste journée,                    Combien qu’Amours l’eût ordonné.                            
Je suis déjà, etc.
I am already sick of love,        My very gentle Valentine, Since for me you were born too soon,                                    And I for you was born too late.                                       God forgives he who has estranged                                Me from you for the whole year.
I am already, etc.                    My very gentle, etc.             Well might I have suspected, Having such a destiny, cousin Thus would have happened this day,                                      How much that Love would have commanded.
I am already, etc           (“French Poems”)

As for valentines in English, the earliest discovered (so far) can be found in Margaret Brewes letters to her future husband, John Paston, “my right well-beloved valentine.” They are part of the Paston Letters collection. A link to the entire letter is below.

Well, there you have it. We can’t really be sure exactly for which Valentine the day was named, or even how the romantic element of it persisted and grew over a thousand years, from the time of the Sts. Valentine martyrdoms, to Chaucer’s mention of the day in a romantic context in 1382, to the Duc d’Orleans’ Valentine to his wife and a 15th Century lady to her betrothed.

Perhaps it just goes to show the enduring need to celebrate the feeling that binds us romantically to another.

But you know, the idea of romantic love goes even further back—to Greek mythology—to that arrow-wielding god Cupid and his mortal lady, Psyche, and a love that transcended time. But that’s another story J

Happy Valentine’s Day. And may we continue to celebrate this timeless tradition of love in our writings.

Sources:          for full text of the Brewes letter.                                                 (I know. I’m sorry. But it has good sourcing.)

The photos are from Wikipedia. The card is from free Valentine's cards.
And if you'd like to read some later Medieval love poems, go here:
(The above was adapted from a previous post.)



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Willa. I'm continually fascinated by the holidays celebrated then.

  2. Nice blog. Saints were celebrated constantly. I heard at one point there were only three none "saint's" days on the church calendar. If the question were When did St Valentine's Day become a commercial holiday? When Hallmark said it was :)

    1. Chuckled at your commercial holiday point, Ashley :) So true. Also at the number of saint's days. I was saddened to hear years ago that St. Barbara was no longer canonized--do I have that stated right? Anyway, apparently she was patron saint of soldiers. Oh, well.

  3. Another fascinating post from you Barb. I have to say I'd like to go round the Cloisters here in NYC with you one day! Let me know if you're ever headed up this way!

    1. Andi that would be fantastic! I'd love to do that. I'll certainly 'holler' next time I'm up there. there used to be a cloister at the Nelson Museum in KC. I always thought it would be wonderful to be married there.

  4. I loved this, Barbara! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Lane. I can't help but help but wonder just how and when these kinds of holidays moved into the general populated in the Middle Ages.

  5. One does not automatically think of Valentine's Day and the medieval world, Barb! If asked, I would have said the day was a modern creation. I love learning differently (hmmm, interesting concept for a medieval love story, lol).

    1. You've got a good idea, Mairi. I was intrigued by the Duc d'Orleans Valentine's message to his wife while he was imprisoned in England. And--that it survived!!

  6. Barb, I loved this post it gave me lots to think about. Thanks

    1. Thanks Marlow. When another medieval author starts "thinking," that usually means another great story! Hope you're hard at work on yours!!