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Valentine: A Short History

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You'll have to excuse me, but when I first read the expression, "A man of most admirable parts," in Charles Wheatly's Book of Common Prayer, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. I imagine the English liturgist meant well, when he chose those words to describe St Valentine, but by 1710, his was just another ruffled voice bleating snowily in the wilderness, lamenting a saint's irreversible shift, from martyr-exemplar to patron saint of carnality; a modification which had begun centuries before with fanciful fourteenth century poets- one in particular- snagged in the exquisite mediaeval silliness of courtly love; rhapsodizing o'er birds and goddesses; embroiling an oblivious Roman in their elegiac tales of love's intolerable agony.

The name Valentinus has forged a determined path to 21st Century shopping centres, from burial sites north of ancient Rome's city limits, at the source of the trans-Italian Via Flaminia. It traversed the continental expanse of Europe to the bosom(s) of, what Mrs Agnes Strickland in 1838 called, the English "peasantry." By Mrs Strickland's century, the name's association with the ninth century culture of martyrology became nebulous; it had long transferred to lovers, inamoratas, paramours, and purveyors of florid poetry in Chaucerian England, slipped from the rosy lips of Shakespeare's Ophelia, and proceeded to bedevil the pockets of Samuel Pepys' seventeenth century gentlemen fellows, who would lavish gaudy valentines upon their mistresses- or else.

By the mid 1800s it graced frilly fancies, transmuting into lucrative gewgaws that London's booksellers and printers would flog by the hundred thousand. It crossed the Atlantic to penetrate New York, Philadelphia and Boston high society, and soon subsumed other American cities and their states. By 1875 the valentine card had defined the young greeting card industry and paved the way for a new British import, the Christmas card. Now, it domineers international consumer perception each February, and signifies globalization, causing protest in India, arrests in Malaysia and trouble for Saudi youth.

One might at first muse that the international blight of flowers and heart-shapes is linked to one of antiquity's martyr-saints, but its contemporary status is more of a testament to its name, than a memento to beheaded unfortunates. The name is pure potency: the Latin root, valent, means strong, healthy, moral, a stalwart. The derivation, Valentinus, became the name of popes and emperors, who popularized its dissemination, to the extent that Valentinuses and Valentinas proliferated by the third century. Many Valentine's Day 'histories' argue the case for a number of 'Valentinii,' but there is considerable scholarly insistence that only two were particularly instrumental to the name's assent, an Umbrian bishop and a Roman priest.

Once upon a time, it seems, they both found themselves in the households of well-to-do Roman citizens, where they were importuned to heal wretchedly afflicted children, but would only do so with an assurance of Christian conversions in return for miracles rendered. Gratitude for cured children yielded a hundred percent conversion rate, but brutal consequences: on February 14th, beastly Roman heathens, alarmed by the religious bumptiousness of it all, promptly beheaded all concerned. The bishop and priest were buried within seventy kilometres of each other, at the Rome end of the Flaminian Way; close to where, a month later (the ides of March), the common people would gather for the feast of Anna Perenna: a moonlight revelry of inebriation, bawdy song, and coupling, to greet the vernal equinox and the year's first full moon.

Alas, the years are wayward: 269, 270 or 273. Dubious histories by imaginative monks, blending evocative mythologies with scraps of oral tradition, implicated an emperor Claudius, in the case of the priest Valentine, yet Christian persecution wasn't historically that emperor's modus operandi. There was another emperor Claudius, but evidence suggests that he preferred battlefields to domestic decapitations. Alas again, Bishop Valentinus was also called St Vincenti, and Vincentis like Valentinuses were legion. Worse still, in widespread religious persecutions that ensued in the 4th century, scores of trial documents and eyewitness chronicles that might have verified identities were destroyed.

Therefore, the so-called acts or passions of our two Valentines were fabricated centuries after their executions, rather like Gospels According to. In time, popes and the pious founded basilicas to commemorate martyrs, housing a relic or two- to attract pilgrim patronage. Churches could ensure a big draw by securing a head of or a robe of or a big toe of etc. Thus, the name's progress accelerated, although its reach was already assured when its third century bearers were relieved of their heads.

Enter Ethelred the Unready and Canute the Great's statuesque Norman dowager, Queen Emma, a bit of a relic fanatic; she loved them, distributed them constantly, and was thus uniquely positioned to get a good deal on a Valentine skull. Instead of bequeathing it to Canterbury- as she had with her St Bartholomew arm and her St Ouen's body- she gave it to the Benedictines at Winchester's New Minster in 1042, to ensure a place for her son Hardecanute in heaven. By the next century the monks' monastery became incommodious, so they transplanted to a roomier Hyde Abbey just outside the Winchester walls. A later abbot attached to Hyde would purchase a Southwark tavern for official London visits- the same tavern from whence a certain Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage would commence in 1380.

So when Geoffrey invoked "Seynt Volantynys" in Parlement of Foules and Complaint of Mars, he may have borrowed Hyde Abbey's, or the one he encountered in Genoa- a San Valentino commemorated in early May close to the Maytime festivities. Geoffrey only mentioned the day; he never specified the date. Possibly, some of his later adherents, who aspired to his vernacular, didn't known about the Genovan, and accidentally reconciled their hero's sumptuous reveries to the Roman martyr's date. Or did he just need a mellifluous name to herald his fictional spring? Frankly, the alternative February saint names don't quite sing: would you rather be someone's Eulalia, Scholastica, Austreberte, Eormenhilde or Valentine?

Hmm...