Did St Valentine exist?
Valentine’s day comes with a sense of relief for middle-aged. At least you are not on tenterhooks about what might, or might not, come in the mail. Truth to tell, apart from welcome tokens of affection from the husband, I don’t think I have ever received a Valentine – of the traditional, unexpected, “wonder who it is” sort.
Nor for that matter have I ever sent one, so far as I can remember. Except years ago as a joke to a senior colleague, who was instantly convinced that it was from someone else. The less said about this the better.
None of which stops me being curious about the Roman history of all this. In fact, for all of you wondering if there was ever a real Saint Valentinus, the good news is that there was not just one, but three.
The bad news is that we know almost nothing reliable about him/them. Earnest and detailed articles about his true history (like the one in last Sunday’s Telegraph) have, I am afraid, fallen for some very unreliable parts of Valentine’s myth.
The "facts" are these.
A stray North African
A Bishop of Terni (in Italy)
A priest in Rome
So far Wiki is reliable, but then -- though it's actually better than most accounts -- it gets a bit dodgier.
The stray North African doesn’t actually get you very far. The second two were both supposed to have been martyred on 14 February, though not necessarily in the same year, and may indeed have been the same person (if they ever existed, that is).
We don’t have any contemporary accounts of the martyrdom of this pair (?one). But there is a sixth or seventh century version which gives them their separate stories. Here the Roman Valentine is said to have been martyred under the emperor Claudius – Claudius Gothicus (268-70). Only trouble is that Claudius Gothicus was a tolerator of Christians, and was hardly in Rome to persecute Christians anyway. The other Valentine, of Terni, may have been martyred in the 270s (no firm date is given), but his story and miracles are not unlike his Roman namesake – more reason for wondering if they are the same. No sign, in either case, of being a patron saint of lovers.
According to the most rigorous modern scholar of our saint (Jack B. Oruch, who wrote a famous article on the subject in Speculum for 1981), that particular element was not actually invented until Chaucer – who was looking for a lovers’ saint to mark the start of spring (February, start of spring before global warming? Well it was helped, apparently, by the calendar being out of synch with the seasons in the fourteenth century.)
But there is another ingenious twist, which appeals to me – although it is, almost certainly, quite wrong. One smart scholar of the eighteenth century shrewdly asked what the pagan Romans would have been doing on 14 February. Answer: in Rome itself, they were in the middle of the weird festival of the Lupercalia (in which naked young men raced round the city, beating with thongs any woman lucky enough to get in their way). One thing we know is that in the late fifth century AD Pope Gelasius was angry to find his flock still enjoying this pagan festival, when they should have been being good Christians. So what does he do? He invents St Valentine’s day, to give his wayward people a fun, but Christian, festival to replace the Lupercalia.
Lovely idea, but not a shred of evidence.