|The Lover's Letter Box, George Baxter|
Although the custom of giving lace-edged, heart-shaped cards to sweethearts and lovers is Victorian in origin, the association of the fourteenth of February with romance goes back a lot further than that. In Roman times it was the eve of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of youth and fertility. During the festival, those taking part chose their sweethearts by way of a lottery. Stripped naked, the young men ‘chastised’ their chosen women on the bottom with goat or dog-skin whips. This was supposed to improve fertility!
While actually unconnected with the celebrations and traditions of the day, St. Valentine – who was renowned for his chastity as well as supporting love and marriage – was martyred on this same date. In about AD 197, Valentine of Terni, a Christian and Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) was, it is thought, imprisoned for his faith on the orders of a Roman called Placid Furius (yes, really!) and tortured before being beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome. Legend has it he was executed on the fourteenth of February; in all probability, however, somebody thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.
In the reign of Emperor Claudius (about AD 289) another priest called Valentine, also a Christian, seems to have been arrested for giving relief to prisoners. Sundry, improbable, stories are attached to his name, where he variously converted his jailer to Christianity by healing the sight of the man’s daughter; fell in love with the daughter and sent her a love letter ‘From your Valentine’; and, when Claudius supposedly banned marriage among young men to make them better soldiers, Valentine was purported to have continued to perform weddings, thus leading to his arrest. Valentine of Rome is also said to have died on the fourteenth of February.
Approaching two hundred years later, in about AD 496, Gelasius, the Pope of that time, ordered that 14 February was to be a Christian feast day and would be named St. Valentine’s Day. This smacks rather strongly of the later claiming of the day following All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) by the Church as All Saints’ Day somewhere around 835. Originally introduced in May, to commemorate martyrs without a particular feast day, it was moved to the first of November to counteract paganism. The last day of the Celtic calendar, the 31st October was the date when the ancient ritual of Samhain was celebrated. Samhain thus became overshadowed by All Hallows' Eve and the Church took back an edge of control. Claim a pagan rite as your own and you not only save face, you can keep the people under your thumb!
It would seem that the connection with the giving of (generally) anonymous love-tokens stems from the belief held in medieval England and France, that the beginning of the second fortnight of the second month of the year was when the birds began to mate. In 1382, Chaucer wrote, in respect of the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ In the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, however, the saint’s day was the second of May – a more appropriate time for birds to mate in England. This is considered the first connection of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love, nevertheless.
By 1601, the feast day was enough of an entity for the Bard himself to have Ophelia lament, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ Two hundred and fifty years later, love-notes had become popular, and in 1797 was published The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, a guide to messages and verse for the aspiring lover.
As with all such festivals, traditions and customs have become synonymous with the occasion. The Roman introduction of chance into the choosing of a partner can be seen in the custom whereby the first member of the opposite sex one sees on the fourteenth is then said to be one’s Valentine.
Another custom slowly being lost in the mists of time is that where young girls put bay leaves beneath their pillows before going to bed on St. Valentine’s Day, in the hopes of dreaming of future husbands. Other games of divination included this popular one: Name(s) of the favoured one(s) were written on slips of paper, enclosed in balls of moist clay and then dropped into a bowl of water. The first piece of paper thus named to rise to the surface would reveal the future sweetheart. Once a girl had chosen her Valentine, he was honour bound to present her with a lover’s gift.
|An Illicit Letter, Vittoio Reggianini|
In the Regency era, lovers of all walks of life might exchange little hand-written billets doux or poems, and gentlemen would present posies of flowers to their sweethearts. Little gifts, of ribbons, lace, a book or perhaps a favourite sweetmeat, were considered unexceptionable tokens of affection, although these were not confined to St. Valentine’s Day. That custom had begun to fade as far previously as the mid eighteenth century, although still continued in parts of Northern England. Nonetheless, as the nineteenth century progressed and postal distribution became more accessible to ordinary folk, anonymous cards were possible. Manufactories began to mass-produce tokens for St. Valentine’s Day, and the downward spiral into commercialism had begun.
All pictures Public Domain
© Heather King