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Valentine's Day.

Seth Mulliken

Looking at the modern, commercial Valentines Day – replete with red hearts, Cupids, cards and flowers – it is easy to forget at times that the 14th of February is actually St. Valentine’s Day, so named for the Roman saint of the third century AD who was summoned before the Emperor, Claudius II. There he recounted himself so well that the Emperor took a liking to him and noted how wisely and correctly he spoke when talking of God. Functionaries in his court, however, worried about the influence that Valentine was gaining with the Emperor and warned that he was being lead astray. This resulted in a hardening of the Emperor’s heart and he turned over Valentine to a prefect for punishment. There he was, through the power of prayer, able to restore the sight of the prefect’s blind daughter and the entire house was converted to Christianity. As a result of this, the Emperor ordered Valentine beheaded around the year 280.

This version of his life, recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth century Legenda Aurea, says nothing of the connection between St. Valentine and lovers, concentrating instead on his spiritual strength as a martyr. Yet in the fourteenth century Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, created for the betrothal of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, states that the events of the poem occurred “on Seynt Valentynes day, / whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make / of every kinde that men thinke may” ([it] “was on Saint Valentine’s day / when every bird came there to choose his mate / of every kind that men may think of”) (l. 309-311). The Oxford English Dictionary states that this is the first reference of St. Valentine’s Day in connection to lovers, a distinction that has led many to assume that Chaucer invented the connection between the two for the sake of the poetic conceit he was setting up.@ The connection between St. Valentine’s Day and the day birds select their mates also appears in the prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (l. 138-146), in Le Songe Saint Valentin by Chaucer’s contemporary and fellow servant of John of Gaunt, Oton de Graunson, and in two poems in John Gower’s Cinkante Balades. Many of the elements we associate with Valentine’s Day today – specifically the use of the pagan god of love Cupid – are also referred to in these poems, which in turn have a connection in both style and substance to the mid-thirteenth century Roman de la Rose.

It is possible that the St. Valentine mentioned by Chaucer actually had a May feast date, which would be more appropriate when the connection to the mating season of birds is considered. However, since there have been twelve saints named Valentine and three of them were supposedly martyred on the 14th of February, it is likely that a conflation of their individual legends created a composite Valentine in the minds of worshippers. Chaucer was then able to appropriate this composite saint for his poetic work and leave the particular feast day ambiguous. It is clear however that by the late fifteenth century that the Saint Valentine spoken of in the Legenda Aurea has had his legend expanded to include the romantic elements that Chaucer connects to him. The marrying of Christian couples – the attribute most connected to the bird’s selection of mates – becomes one of the reasons for St. Valentine’s arrest in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. The Chronicle’s woodcut of the Saint is also supposedly the first depiction of Valentine, but as we will see there was at least one earlier depiction.

In honor of the day, we at MESA have selected a number of images from our collection – some religious, some fanciful, and some bawdy – to illustrate the many ways in which people of the middle ages chose to represent and honor love and the saint who came to be associated with it.