Vicar’s article from the Bridge Magazine, March 2019
All you need is love
How did your Valentine’s Day go? Chances are your February 14th went a lot better than it did for the two men for whom the day is named.
Today’s consumer-driven Valentine’s Day festival traces its roots back to the 14th century English poet Chaucer, whose poem the Parliament of Foules pictured all the birds meeting to choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. But the day’s origins are older than Chaucer. It was the 5th century Pope Gelasius I who made February 14th St Valentine’s Day. He wanted to help people forget a banned Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia which was traditionally celebrated in mid-February. During Lupercalia, youths raced naked through the streets of Rome, striking women with bloody strips of flesh taken from the remains of goats and dogs sacrificed on the Lupercal Altar. This practice was thought to increase women’s fertility.
Instead, Pope Gelasius introduced something altogether more wholesome: a day to honour two early Christian leaders, both called Valentine, who were martyred by Emperor Claudius II around 270AD.
One Valentine was a priest executed on February 14th for defying an imperial order. In those days only single men could serve in the army, and facing a shortage of recruits, the emperor decided that banning marriage would increase the number of potential soldiers. When Valentine was caught secretly marrying couples, he was arrested, and Claudius had him clubbed to death in the street. You won’t find that image on Valentine’s cards in Tesco.
The second Valentine was a Christian bishop from Terni. Arrested for preaching in the streets of Rome, he was placed in the custody of a judge called Asterius who decided to put Valentine’s God to the test. Bringing in his blind daughter, Asterius told Valentine he would convert to Christianity if God could heal the girl’s eyes. Valentine prayed and the daughter could see again, and three days later the judge and all his household were baptised. Asterius then released Valentine who returned to street preaching and was again arrested. From prison, Valentine wrote a letter to Asterius’s daughter signed, “From your Valentine”, so he’s the one to blame for all those pink cards!
Valentine was eventually brought before Emperor Claudius with whom he tried to engage in debate about Christianity. Claudius found the debate interesting but when it started going badly for him, he resolved things by executing Valentine. The date? February 14th. Another Happy Valentine’s Day.
So, two Valentines, one who risked his life to defy an emperor, the other a missionary and champion of free religious speech. And both were killed on February 14th, to give birth to our modern festival. Given a choice between “I love you” cards and striking ladies with strips of goat flesh, I think the Pope Gelasius got this one right!