February 14th is celebrated the world over as Valentine’s Day. Cards are sent in hope, roses inexplicably shoot up in price, and all the good restaurants are booked: you know the drill.
However you may be less familiar with St Valentine, the Christian after whom the Feast of St Valentine is named. And honestly you would be in good company, for it seems nobody else quite knows what he did either.
Even going as far back as Pope Gelasius I, who commemorated St Valentine in 496 AD by naming 14th February as his feast day, nobody seems to be certain of his provenance. Even Gelasius, who clearly knew the man was an important Christian martyr, could not provide an answer.
Pope Gelasius instead could only offer in support of Valentine’s canonization that he was one of the saints “…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” In other words, he was very important in the early church, mentioned in the list of Roman martyrs in 354 AD. But we’re just not sure why.
A Multitude of Stories
In fact we have three different versions of why St Valentine is a saint, none of which were endorsed by Gelasius himself and all of which appear to come from much later. There are some consistencies however: we know he was a Roman, apparently martyred in 269 given the reference to “Emperor Claudius [Gothicus]”.
Claudius ruled from 268 to 270 BC, which fits neatly into the chronology above and allows us to pinpoint the death of Valentine with a nicety. However beyond this all is hearsay, from much later sources.
The most prominent story about Valentine, and the one which appears In the most versions, was that he was a Roman priest who conducted illicit Christian weddings which were strictly forbidden by the Roman state. This was bad, but Valentine went a step further by befriending the emperor and trying to convert him to Christianity.
This got him killed in short order, as you would expect: Rome was not quite ready for that sort of thing. A couple more details fill in the gaps: Valentine was known for cutting hearts from parchment and giving them to Christians as a sign of love and fidelity, for which the greetings card industry aas forever thankful.
There is also the story of Valentine miraculously restoring a girl’s sight. Saints, after all, need miracles if they are to be canonized, and this was Valentine’s. Some say he restored the sight of the daughter of his jailer. Others that it was in response to a test brought by a Roman judge.
But as mentioned above the central problem with these accounts is their date. The marriage story comes from the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, compiled in the 13th century. The story of the hearts is even later, from the Nuremberg Chronicle published in 1493.
These are beautiful and fitting accounts, but they are a thousand years too late. It would seem that we, like Pope Gelasius I, have no idea what the man actually did. All we have is his legacy as a Christian martyr, but it seems that his name, at least, will never be forgotten.
Top Image: Saint Valentine: a hugely significant early saint about whom we know almost nothing. Source: interestingliterature.com / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green