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Valentine’s Day shouldn’t come and go without at least a mention. There’s enough myth going around about the origin of the holiday to commission a scholar to cut to the chase. This was done by the Teaching Company a good while back, I took some notes, and herewith the gritty details:

Who’s Valentine? There were some 13 Valentines in the ancient Church, two of which were most popular, both having been martyred on February 14th (probably, therefore, the same person). In the 6th-9th century their martyr accounts were written. Strangely, they have a history of curing epilepsy.

Why then the courtship connection? In the late 14th century Chaucer wrote four poems called The Parliament of Fowls. The poems took Valentine’s Day as their theme, and in them the narrator witnesses birds gathering on that day to choose their mates. Other poets borrowed the motif, probably from Chaucer. Thus by the late 14th/early 15th century Valentine and courtship were linked. Christine de Pizan et. al. would later try their hands at Valentine’s Day poems.

Researchers assumed that Chaucer chose Valentine’s Day because of the link with courtship, but there is no link between the actual St. Valentine feast on February 14th and courtship that scholars can find before Chaucer. Up until then the St. Valentine cult was only linked with epilepsy cures.

Historian Henry Ansgar Kelly has suggested that the link came about because Chaucer was thinking of Valentine of Genoa, a saint celebrated in a local Italian festival in early May. Chaucer had traveled to Genoa in 1373, and during his traveling he came across the feast day. This must have been what he had in mind when he wrote his very Springtime reflections on courtship. Contemporaries misread the poem, and associated it with the more popular St. Valentine’s day of February 14th.

Then what’s all this “Lupercalia” business? In Alban Butler’s popular Lives of the Saints (18th century), the letter of Pope Gelasius denouncing the Roman feast of Lupercalia (celebrated on February 15th) is wrongly thought to have led to the pagan festival being “replaced” by the Pope with St. Valentine’s Day. Though that interesting connection is commonly made, it’s a bogus one.

Behind Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, behind the Easter Bunny is an empty tomb, and behind candy hearts are a host of martyrs and a string of healed epileptics. The leviathan of truth swims beneath the innocent surface of what seems just a kiddy-pool of American kitsch. Glorious, quirky, messy Christendom. Count me in.

[cross-posted at millinerd]

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