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Who Was St. Valentine? – Lesson

GettyImages-917868874 St. Valentine

(Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Who is really responsible for the beginning of Valentine’s Day?

It’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday to celebrate romance and love. It’s a time to give out chocolates and poetic cards to loved ones and those you might have a crush on. But who was St. Valentine and why is this day associated with him?

You might be surprised to find out that no one knows who the real St. Valentine really was. Historians agree (and disagree) that there are two likely suspects, but these men are more martyrs than an inspiration for love and poetry. In fact, some argue that the two men might be one in the same. Let’s take a look:

valentine GettyImages-695888681

(Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).

In one account from the 1400s, Valentine is depicted as a temple priest in ancient Rome. He defied the order of Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel, and helped young couples get married. As the story goes, Claudius was struggling to find enough soldiers to serve the Roman empire, and he blamed the family attachments of young men. The emperor banned marriages, as he thought wives and families made young men reluctant to enter a military life. Valentine thought the order was unjust, and held weddings in secret. The priest’s actions were discovered, and he was arrested and sentenced to death in around the year 270. It’s said that he met a guard’s daughter while in jail and before his execution he left her a note signed “From your Valentine.”

Another story is virtually the same, except it says that Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, a city in Italy. Both versions of the tale say the man was buried on February 14, in a Christian cemetery on the Via Flaminia, an ancient road that led out of Rome.

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St Valentine of Terni (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Both St. Valentine of Rome and St. Valentine of Terni are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, but not much is known about either one of them. In fact, Pope Gelasius I, in A.D. 496, referred to the saints’ actions as “being known only to God.” Despite the mystery, Gelasius established the Feast of Saint Valentine, to be celebrated on February 14. However, the purpose of the holiday was not to celebrate love or romance, but to honor the sacrifice of the Christian martyrs.

To add to the confusion, St. Valentine is not the only saint with the same name. There are about a dozen St. Valentines, including a pope. A St. Valentine of Genoa also exists, and he was celebrated in early May. The most recent to receive the saint status is St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Spaniard who went to Vietnam and served as bishop until he was beheaded in 1861. Pope John Paul II canonized him in 1988.

So, what does being St. Valentine mean? This person is considered the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy. People also call on this saint to watch over the lives of couples as well as marriages, which adds to the idea behind the holiday. The saint is also called upon to intervene when there are plagues, when someone has fainted, or for safe traveling.


Canterbury pilgrims portrait – illuminated manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

While St. Valentine is a patron of marriage, he has a lot of other causes, too. So how did the date become so connected to the idea of love and romance? Some historians believe the credit should go to the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. In fact, some say he may well have “invented” Valentine’s Day.

Chaucer may have created the holiday of love with his poem, “Assemble of Foules  [Assembly of Fowls],” or “Parlement of Briddes [Parliament of Birds],” written around 1375.

The poem describes an assembly of birds who are choosing their mates on Valentine’s Day. Chaucer wrote: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/ Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

It’s not clear which Valentine the poet meant to honor, or on which date he thought the celebration should occur. However, it was popular during Chaucer’s day to celebrate chivalry and tragic love stories between noble ladies and knights. It seems he inspired a trend of stories and songs depicting Valentine’s Day as a day for love.