Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.
It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.
In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.
What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).
There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.
In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:
Good morrow, Valentine,
First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,
Please to give me a Valentine.
They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.
By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.
By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.