February 14 marks the yearly reminder of sweethearts and romance but many forget that the feast originated with a Christian saint from Rome named Valentine.
Many countries, such as Italy and France, still call this Saint Valentine’s Day, a rarity now in the English-speaking world.
The details surrounding St. Valentine — or Valentinus, as he was called then — are contested, but the real Valentinus seems to have been a third-century Roman priest known for ministering to persecuted Christians, whose lives were always in danger of martyrdom under the Roman Emperor Claudius II.
Valentine is also remembered for having celebrated illegal Christian weddings, putting his life on the line for young couples who wished to wed before God. This helps to explain his association with lovers and the heart symbol used to commemorate his feast.
All accounts coincide that Valentine was beheaded for his Christian faith and buried on February 14 at the Roman cemetery on the Via Flaminia, at the gate outside the Piazza del Popolo that used to bear his name.
The date of February 14 has been preserved for the Feast of Saint Valentine ever since it was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD in tribute to his memory. Archaeologists have also unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to the Roman saint.
Wearing a crown of flowers, Saint Valentine’s skull is now on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, on Rome’s Bocca della Verità piazza, while most of his earthly remains are housed at the Church of San Antonio in Madrid, Spain.
A casket containing several of Valentine’s bones and a vial of his blood have been stored in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, in Dublin, since 1936, which now serves as a pilgrimage site for lovers.
In Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules one reads:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his mate.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome