Agincourt, Claudius, doilies, Duke of Orleans, Emperor Claudius, Esther Howland, Februrary 14, fertility festival, goat hides, History, Lotteries, Middle Ages, Pope Gelasius, Roman Empire, Roman priests, Rome, Saint Valentine, Valentine Day, Valentinus
Why should this be a surprise? The one thing that links human beings all the way back to the first of our species is our infinite capacity to love.
The 600-year-old valentine above was written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. A French nobleman and poet, Charles was captured by the English at the great and astonishing English victory at the battle of Agincourt. I think it was really nice of the English to deliver the valentine. Or maybe they didn’t, as it now resides in the British Library in London. Did somebody say, “Look, how cool is this? The first ever valentine in the history of the world! And it’s really well-written. Let’s keep it.”
The more interesting question is, whoever thought up Valentine’s Day to begin with, and when? Let’s go on a little scavenger hunt back through history to find out.
Here we are in the Middle Ages, those centuries, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, of universal ignorance, disease, filth and bloodshed. And yet, people still lifted their grimy faces to the little birdies in the trees, observed that in the middle of February they were mating for their spring babies, and thought, February is the month for love, romance—and whatnot. ‘Course, nobody knew how to write, so they didn’t send cards.
Let’s go back past the Middle Ages to the glorious and inglorious Roman Empire. You had to know we’d end up there. Those Romans were something weren’t they? While they were conquering the entire known western hemisphere, they were also installing the world’s first indoor plumbing, inventing caesarean birth methods, raising hell on New Year’s Eve, and celebrating Valentine’s Day?
Not exactly. They actually executed St. Valentine. But before that, on February 15 every year, they had a fertility festival involving—no, it’s okay—involving the sacrifice of a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification) and then to encourage fertility, Roman priests would run around gently slapping women and crops with the bloody strips of the sacrificed goat’s hide. (Well? So? Our symbol of love is a big, blood-red human heart, for Pete’s sake.)
Okay, so then along came the Christians. They do not approve of this manner of having fun, or of any other form of Roman badness. They particularly do not approve of the Roman lottery held on this day. As you might suspect, the Roman lottery was a wee bit different from our lotteries. In their February 15 lottery, young unmarried women put their names in a big urn, and then the town’s bachelors drew names and then, well, you know.
The Christian members of these happy communities knew it was pointless to argue the pagans out of their happiness, so they ingeniously decided to call February the fourteenth Saint Valentine’s Day, hoping the Romans wouldn’t notice that they were turning their pagan festival into a Christian holiday. They probably succeeded in this plan, for it is doubtful that the Romans did notice.
And who was Saint Valentine? He was a Christian priest who was secretly and illegally marrying soldiers to their sweethearts. Emperor Claudius didn’t want soldiers getting married because he thought unmarried men made better soldiers. Which is probably true. In any case, Valentinus had a big heart (I COULD NOT RESIST THAT), so he married these guys anyway. So, against their own personal feelings in the matter but following orders, Claudius’s soldiers threw Valentinus in jail and the night before he was executed (I guess every offense was a capital offense in Rome), he wrote a real sweet note to a girl and signed it “from your Valentinus.”
So then, because early Christians were keen on sanctifying anybody who defied those incorrigibly pagan Romans, the Church canonized Valentinus. And around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day. Like, BAM No more sacrifices and running around slapping women with bloody goat hides and NO MORE LOTTERIES.
But, you know, people are sneaky. Over the past 1500 years, we’ve sort of toed St. Valentine’s Day back in the direction of an occasion for, well, romance-and whatnot. First, we quietly dropped the “Saint” from the name of the holiday. By the 1700s, exchanging valentine gifts and notes was becoming popular and if I know anything about those perfumed ladies and gentlemen with powdered wigs and pancake makeup, I can tee-total guaranteeee you they weren’t using the occasion for religious observances.
Mass production of valentine cards began in the 1840’s. In the U.S., of course. You know how we are. Commercialize everything. And it figures it was a woman, Esther Howland, who started it. Why? Well, what man would be interested in valentines unless he was afraid of not getting in the house on February 14 without one?
So, for their frantic rush to the grocery store for a card and flowers on Valentine’s night, men can thank a priest. A priest who fell in love.
And you thought history was dull.
From bloody executions and sacrifices, we have Valentine’s Day, a day when little kids sit at their school desks with the tips of their tongues beneath their teeth and make valentines out of red construction paper and white paper doilies. Today, instead of a bloody goat hide, a boy will slap a mangled valentine in a little girl’s hand and run like hell and, as in all ages and places, the little girl will look down at the valentine in her hand and smile.
The point is learning history is that when we look back, we realize two things:
1) What not to do,
2) That the world is getting better all the time.