Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Short Valentine's History

I've a story brewing in Regency England, set over Valentine's Day. And that means finding out what the celebration was really like--but it also means going back in time to really figure out the holiday. (For it was indeed once a Holy-Day.)

Like many holidays, Valentine’s Day has roots in ancient pagan celebration. The Roman festival of Lupercalia was held at the ides of February and was, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. (This is also the Greek god Pan, meaning this was a lively festival, Pan being what he was.) Pope Gelasius did away with the god's holiday and set February 14 to be the Feast of St. Valentine instead.

The question is—which Valentine is being sainted and feasted?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were at least three early Christian saints named Valentine—it was a popular name. All three candidates were said to have been martyred on February 14, and the reasons for the sainthood are more myth than history.

One story has St. Valentine marrying soldiers even thought Claudius II had prohibited marriage for young men, claiming bachelors made better soldiers. It should be noted such a marriage ban was never issued, and that Claudius II actually told his soldiers to take two or three women for themselves after the Roman victory over the Goths.

Another tale, added centuries later, has Valentine, imprisoned by Claudius II, falling in love with the daughter of his jailer, and before he is executed sending her a letter signed "from your Valentine."
And yet another has St. Valentine executed for his Christian love and refusing to renounce his religion—which is far more likely.

The Valentine added to to the calendar of saints was most likely was buried on the Via Flaminia and his relics were kept in the San Valentino in Rome. In the Middle Ages, this was an important site for pilgrims, but  the relics were transferred to the Church of Santa Prassede, and some made their way to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.

While the Roman feast for Faunus was associated with fertility, it was not until the 14th century that the Christian feast day became associated with love. UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly gives Chaucer the credit for this in his book, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine. In 1381, to honor the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer penned "The Parliament of Fowls," linking the royal engagement to what was held to be the start of the mating season of birds and St. Valentine's Day, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,”
While Chaucer might have linked this idea in words, it’s also possible he was simply following a popular pattern. Written valentine letters—those that have come down to us in history—appear from around 1400 and may have been around earlier but might not have survived.  After his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a valentine to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. About sixty poems from the duke written in the early 1400’s are now in the manuscript collection at the British Library in London. In a letter sent in Norfolk in 1477, Margery Brews describes John Paston as ‘my right well beloved Valentine’.

Shakespeare also has Ophelia sing to Hamlet, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,To be your Valentine.

By the Sixteenth Century, written valentines were commonplace and by the Seventeenth Century, it was a widespread tradition in England for friends and sweethearts to exchange gifts and notes on February 14. In Norfolk, 'Jack' Valentine (or Father Valentine or Snatch Valentine) knocked on the rear door of the house and left sweets and presents for children. Although he did leave treats, he could also use these to snatch up unsuspecting children.

The exchange of cards or letters exploded in England in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

The Ipswich Journal of 23rd February 1805 reported: On Valentine’s Day the General Two-penny Post Office received 80,000 letters – an increase from last year of 20,000.  The amount of 80,000 letters is 686£ 13s 4d.” This was an era in which the receiver of the letter paid for postage, unless the postage had been paid in advance—so a gift of a letter could be a considerable expense.

Handwritten letters were soon to be replace, however. And Valentine's Day was heading into the romantic holiday we now know--a day to woo and wed.

The British Museum currently holds what is though to be the oldest printed Valentine's card, published in January 1797 by John Fairburn of 146, Minories, London. It has been “pierced to produce a lace effect in the corners and is decorated with cupids, doves and flowers which were probably hand coloured after printing.” The verse printed states: 

"Since on this ever Happy day,/All Nature's full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,/'Tis but to be your Valentine."

The card was sent by Catherine Mossday to Mr Brown of Dover Place, Kent Road, London. Inside a handwritten message reads:  “Mr Brown, As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher. Catherine Mossday.”  It rather sounds like poor Catherine was an unhappy lover, but her heart was in the right place.

While no one can truly date the origin of the heart shape we use so often today, many scholars argue the symbol has its roots in the writings of Galen and Aristotle, who described the human heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. In the 14th century, Guido da Vigevano created drawings featuring a heart that resembles that described by Aristotle. The shape became a symbol of romance and medieval courtly love and grew popular during the Renaissance when used in religious art depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ, or as one of the four suits in playing cards. By the 18th and 19th centuries, it had become a recurring motif in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards.

For those lovers who did not have the gift of art or poetry, booklets came out in the late 1700’s and 1800’s with verses that could be used. Kemmish's Annual and Universal Valentine Writer was printed in London in 1797, and Cupid's Annual Charter; or, St. Valentine's Festival was published in 1815 and offered poetry that could be copied and sent. And several other such booklets came out.

The full onslaught of valentine’s cards, however, began in the 1840s when Esther A. Howland began selling the mass-produced valentine cards in America made with “real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as ‘scrap.’”

In 1861, John Cadbury, who had opened a tea and coffee shop in Birmingham in 1822, expanded into chocolate manufacturing and packaged his chocolates in the world's first heart-shaped box for Valentine's Day.

The Victorians also started the idea of 'secret admirers' with the idea it bad luck to sign the cards. And they started the tradition of sending red roses, said to be the favorite flower of the goddess Venus. For while the Persian idea of the "language of flowers" had come to Europe far earlier, the Victorians popularized all sorts of “languages of love and flirtation.”

For the Regency era--unless one lived in Norfolk--it would be church and perhaps cards exchanged. And oh, those letters would arrive.

In 1969, the Catholic Church revised its liturgical calendar and removed the feast days of saints whose historical origins were questionable. St. Valentine was one of the casualties. But the date is still celebrated world-wide.

No comments: