Out of curiosity I decided to check into the nature and history of Saint Valentine and found myself on the Catholic Education Resource Centre website where I read that there were three different martyrologies of Valentine; two in Italy and another in North Africa, and all sharing the feast day of the 14th of February. Both of the Italian Valentines were martyred during the reign of Claudius II, and the Roman Valentine met his end (beaten and then decapitated) on the 14th of February 270 A.D. He was buried on the Flaminian Way, and then during the papacy of Julius I (333-356 A.D.) a basilica was built on his burial site (attested to by archaeological digs in the 16th and 19th centuries).
So what exactly does he have to do with romantic love, cardboard hearts and overpriced flowers?
According to the Catholic Church, nothing.
The earliest references connecting romance and February 14 relate to the coming of spring. In his Parliament of Fowls, the earliest reference to romance and Valentine, Chaucer records a tradition that birds began to pair on Saint Valentine's Day. This was a romantic style of love, as this pairing is described as taking place in the Garden of Love. This poem is interesting in that it references the Dream of Scipio and contains many pagan Roman references.
In the Roman period, the day after Saint Valentine's Day, the Ides of February, was the date of the festival of Lupercalia. As an undergraduate I designed a poster for a Lupercalia party. It featured goats, whips, nudity and fertility during a time of year surrounded by cupids, hearts and roses. Its use was not approved. Unlike sending flowers and cards, the Lupercalia started with young Roman noblemen, Luperci, who sacrificed goats, dressed themselves only in a loincloth made from the skin of the slaughtered goat, fashioned a whip from goat skin they weren't wearing, and then ran around the centre of Rome (around the Palatine Hill, up the Via Sacra and through the Forum) laughing and whipping women; a ritual which in today's universities would sound like some kind of Satanic college fraternity hazing ritual.
Rather than humiliation, the purpose of this near-nude run was to increase fertility among the women who were struck by the whips and the purify the city.
There has been a great deal of research devoted to the Lupercalia over the years, and much of it has left me with more questions than answers and confused, so I was pleasantly surprised to come across John North's and Neil McLynn's studies in The Journal of Roman Studies 2008. Their papers have summed what we can and can't say relating to the festival during the Republican and late antique Christian periods. These papers are worth reading if you are interested in more detail. North's study focuses on the Lupercalia of 44 B.C. during which Mark Antony, who was a Lupercus, offered a crown to Julius Caesar, while McLynn's focuses on the open letter written by Pope Gelasius (492-6 A.D.) against the Roman nobleman, Andromachus, who was sponsoring the Lupercalia in the late 5th century.
North refers to the Lupercalia as a carnival, and as having a Carnival-like atmosphere owing to its joyous public celebration accompanied by laughter. One part of his study focused on the mythical aetiology of the festival - a race between the founders of the city of Rome, Romulus and Remus who were suckled by the She-Wolf at the Lupercal, to retrieve stolen cattle. This indicates that in addition to being a fertility rite and a ritual cleansing of the city, the Lupercalia also honoured the founders of the city. The race was won by Remus, the twin who would later be killed by his brother for crossing the sacred boundary of Rome without permission, which according to North reflects the reversal of social order in the Lupercalia, though it is not as dramatic as the reversal illustrated during the Saturnalia.
|Representation of the Lupercal dating to the reign of Trajan or Hadrian. Palazzo Massimo Della Terme.|
Found at Ostia Antica. From Wikipedia.
McLynn does not draw a strong comparison between the Lupercalia and Carnivale, but his description of the later Lupercalia drew my attention to its correspondence in the calendar to Lent, and therefore to Carnivale and Mardi Gras. According to McLynn, in 487 A.D. the 15th of February fell on the Sunday which marked the beginning of Lent. This meant that the Lupercalia was not celebrated that year, which North believes helps to explain Gelasius' statement that there had been a cessation in the celebration of the festival. Gelasius also wrote that the Lupercalia was no longer run by members of Rome's elite families, but by actors who were paid by them instead. Gelasius (and McLynn's study of his work) describes a professional street parade performed by actors, and most likely actresses, who are described as singing songs composed for the purpose of publicising the city's wrong-doers as a form of public spectacle and purification. There was no sacrifice of goats before hand as pagan sacrifices had been banned by the emperor Theodosius I in 381 A.D. (Theodosian Code 16.10.7); all participants were members of the theatrical community and as such were not allowed to participate in Christianity's ritual of sacrament (if they were given the sacrament on their deathbed and then recovered it was illegal for them to return to the stage according to Theodosian Code 15.7.1); and rather than being a run, it was a piece of street theatre or pageantry with song (and perhaps music - I have found no evidence for this but music was a common part of Roman festivals in the past and continued to be a part of theatre performances in this period).
To me, that sounds an awful lot like Mardi Gras and Carnivale.
I haven't been able to find any evidence to illustrate continuity from the late antique Lupercalia to the later Italian Carnivale, but that is as much evidence as there is illustrating some connection between romance and the life of Saint Valentine. I guess that when we strip away all the religious connotations, be they Christian or Roman, Lupercalia, Carnivale, Mardi Gras and the Feast of Saint Valentine are all celebrations of the coming of Spring.
Interestingly, the reverend who wrote the article I read discussing the relationship between romantic love and Saint Valentine suggested that the spiritual connection between the two relates to people pledging their love and fidelity, relating this to the martyrdom of Valentine and to John 15:12-13 "This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
A cynic might interpret this as "Marriage=Martyrdom and Death", but I haven't found a Hallmark card featuring that inscription yet. Or goats, whips and nudity, come to think of it.