The observation of St. Valentine’s Day has its origins in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival. That celebration involved lots of naked men running around the city spanking women’s bottoms, which was thought to increase their fertility. And like all good pagan rites of yore, Christians swooped in and usurped these festivities; after the death of Christ, February 14th became a date associated with the martyr of three different saints, all coincidentally named Valentine (or Valentinus, in the Latin of the day).
The first documented association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love came with the publication of Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382:
Ye knowe wel how, Seynt Valentynes day,
By my statut and through my governaunce,
Ye come for to chese — and flee your way —
Your makes, as I prik yow with plesaunce.
History also reveals a Frenchman (of course!) holds the honor of first to send a Valentine, although under tragic circumstances. After his capture following the Battle of Agincourt, the duc D’Orléans wrote a missive to his wife from his cell in the Tower of London. He addressed her as “my sweet Valentine.”
Shakespeare brought the concept of Valentines and Valentine’s Day to the masses when he penned Ophelia’s mournful song for Hamlet (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5).
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door.
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more.
The idea of sending notes specifically on Valentine’s Day took off in England, so much so that a how-to book was published in 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer. The rampant popularity naturally meant the term would be adopted into the vernacular.
The first woman seen by a man, or man seen by a woman, on St. Valentine’s day, the 14th of February, when it is said every bird chuses his mate for the ensuing year.
Early Valentines were personal and hand-made, specific to the tastes and feelings of the sender and recipient. Witness this lovely Puzzle Purse Valentine from 1816. The squares are numbered so that the message can be read in order as each section is opened. The final message or illustration takes the center spot. Who wouldn’t love to receive one of these? For directions on making your own Puzzle Purse, click here.
Click here to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules in its entirety, and in all its Middle English glory.
To see the first Valentine ever sent, please click here.
Information on the history of Valentine’s Day culled from Collector’s Weekly, History Revisited, and History.com.
Slang term from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.