In the beginning…
As with the other holidays I have examined on this blog, to find the origins of Valentine’s Day we must travel back to ancient Rome. This time, the beginning of spring was the cause for celebration among the pagan Romans, in the form of the festival of Lupercalia, a celebration of fertility and birth. And, once again, the early Christian church elected to overlay this holiday with one of their own, leading to a blending of Christian and pagan tradition. At the end of the fifth century A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day. When it comes to the namesake of this holiday, however, the source is a bit of a mystery. At least three different saints by the name of Valentine are recognized by the Catholic Church today, and no one knows which of these, if any, is the patron saint of February 14th. One popular theory is that he was a third century Roman priest who performed secret marriages for young lovers, when it was outlawed for single men required for military service to marry.
Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day continued to grow in prominence and popularity. It was long thought that the first association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love dated to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382), when he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” It’s more likely, however, that this verse refers to a date not in February but in May, honoring the marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. The initial idea was planted, though, and many still associate these lines on lovebirds with February 14th. Just eighteen years later, in 1400, a “High Court of Love” was established on Valentine’s Day in Paris. This “court” dealt solely with love contracts, betrayals, and other romantic matters, and the judges were selected by women based on a contest of poetry reading. Shortly afterward, in 1415, the oldest known Valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt. By Shakespeare’s day, a tradition was firmly in place for celebrating Valentine’s Day as an occasion for expressing hidden or not-so-hidden affection.
A Renaissance Valentine
During the Renaissance, a common Valentine’s Day activity was for men and women to draw names from a bowl in order to find out who their “Valentine” for the day would be, a tradition dating back to the original Roman festivities. They would then wear the name they had drawn pinned on their sleeve (thus the expression, “to wear your heart on your sleeve”). In Shakespeare’s day, gloves, not flowers or jewelry, were the favored Valentine gift. A lady might approach her gentleman of choice and say, “Good-morrow Valentine, I go today;/ To wear for you, what you must pay;/ A pair of gloves next Easter Day.” The selected fellow was then required to send the lady a pair of gloves, and, if she wore them on Easter, he would know his romantic overtures would be further welcomed. If the lady was the superstitious sort, she might pin five bay leaves to her pillow at bedtime on Valentine’s Day in the belief that she would then dream of her future husband.
Of course, I couldn’t write about Valentine’s Day without including some recipes. Try this Stuart era recipe for Knotts and Gumballs – glazed cookies that can be made in the shape of hearts or, if you’re feeling especially ambitious, Celtic love knots. And as for that Valentine staple, chocolate, it was brought back to Europe from the New World by Spanish Conquistadors in the early sixteenth century, and it caught on quick. Yet its original form was as a drink, not as truffles or bon-bons. As a beverage, chocolate became highly fashionable and was originally a drink reserved for the wealthy. We may find a hint of what was to come, though, in this quote by Captain John Wadswroth, from his 1652 treatise Chocolate: or, an Indian Drinke: “And sometimes they make tablets of the Sugar, and the Chocolate together: which they doe onely to please the Pallats, as the Dames of Mexico doe use it; and they are there sold in shops, and are confected and eaten like other sweet-meats.”
Shakespeare + Valentine’s Day
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet.
When searching for suitable Shakespearean inspiration on Valentine’s Day, it is probably wise not to turn to his most direct reference to the holiday, spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more” (4.5.48-55).
Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet.
“Then let me go, and hinder not my course.
I’ll be as patient as a gentle stream,
And make a pastime of each weary step,
Till the last step have brought me to my love;
And there I’ll rest, as after much turmoil,
A blessed soul doth in Elysium” (The Two Gentlement of Verona, 2.7.33-38).