In amongst the cards, flowers, chocolates, gifts, dinners and all other valentine-themed goodies that you are lured into buying for your loved one, I cant help but think whether any of us know how Valentines Day came about. After a little bit of research this morning, I dug up some great info on the history of Valentines Day that I hope you find is of interest.
Like many saints, actual details about Valentine’s life are hard to come by. There are at least three saints with that name, but the famous one was a Christian priest who lived in Rome in the third century. He appears to have been imprisoned, beaten with clubs and eventually beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Claudius II, all for being a Christian.
Luckily, his execution coincided with the pagan festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to Juno, the goddess of women and fertility, when boys were encouraged to draw from a jar the names of girls written on slips of paper.
After Pope Gelasius set aside the day to honour St Valentine in 496, the saint gradually became adopted as the patron saint of lovers.
The idea that Valentine’s Day is the date birds start to mate dates from the 14th century, and bird superstitions are common.
In Cornwall, young men would launch an early morning hunt with a net for an owl and two sparrows. If they could capture the birds without injury and get to the inn before the females of the house had risen, they were rewarded with three pots of ale laced with a shot of wormwood.
The first man to send a Valentine note was a Frenchman. Charles, Duke of Orleans, was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He remained there for 25 years and wrote 60 love poems addressed to his wife, which are claimed as the first formal “valentines”. One even refers to her as “Ma tres doulce Valentinée“.
Later, books of sentimental poems were published to help lovers express their feelings. Often these were practical how-to books: one published in 1797 was called The Young Man’s Valentine Writer. From this it was a short step to ready-printed cards with verses and sketches known as “mechanical verses”, often sent anonymously.
In the 1840s, a young American woman, Esther Howland (1828-1904), received an English Valentine and decided to introduce the tradition to the United States. She produced cards carrying messages like “Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no”. The cards fell out of fashion in Britain by the 1890s but more than a century later a billion cards are sent each year worldwide, with 85 per cent purchased by women.
The traditional Valentine’s heart shape might derive from the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as a herbal contraceptive. Early visual representations in religious art made the heart look more like a pine cone.
The characteristic indentation in the top first appeared in a book called Documenti d’Amore by the artist Francesco da Barbarino in 1347. Barbarino worked in Bologna, where human anatomy was all the rage, so it is likely he had seen human hearts at first hand. The idea of the heart having two sides echoed the biblical image of the two tablets of the law, written in the heart. The island of Galesnjak in Croatia (pictured, left) is a naturally formed heart shape.
The iconic hippy LOVE image (with the LO above the VE) was created by Robert Indiana, a leader of the New York pop art movement. Indiana claimed that his inspiration came from the inscription on the wall of a Christian Scientist church, which he had attended as a child.
In 1973, the US Post Office reproduced it on a Valentine’s Day stamp which sold more than 300 million units and made $25 million for the Post Office. Indiana had never copyrighted the design and so earned nothing. He recently emerged from his island retreat to create a matching red, white and blue sculpture of HOPE for the Obama campaign.
If you have any other interesting Valentines Day facts then please let us know.