The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Published: February 3, 2015

St. Valentine’s Day as a feast for lovers has been researched by Andy Kelly, a former director of CMRS and now Distinguished Research Professor, UCLA Department of English, in his book Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine (1986).  He concludes that it was a poetic fancy of Geoffrey Chaucer, devised to celebrate the anniversaries of the engagement of the young King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia on May 3, 1381.  May 3 was the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa (an early bishop of Genoa), and Chaucer portrayed it as the day on which all the birds gathered to choose their mates for the year.

The idea of celebrating lovers on Valentine’s Day took off, but it was shifted back to the winter feast of the well-known St. Valentine of Rome, on February 14, hardly a suitable time for birds to gather, except in places like Southern California. But, as Professor Kelly notes, even here February can be bleak, and it’s nice to have a day for lovers to break up the dreariness.

There does seem to have been a real martyr named Valentine who died on February 14, but it was in the city of Terni, not in Rome. However, all of the stories told about Valentine of Terni are pious fictions. Valentine of Rome, on the other hand, is entirely fictitious: he was dreamed up to give greater cachet to the fourth-century Basilica of Valentine, named after its wealthy benefactor, Valentinus.

In the 1970 shake-up of the saints’ calendar, the Catholic Church gave the February 14 billing to the Slavic missionaries Cyril and Methodius (the Cyrillic alphabet is named after St. Cyril), taking it away from Valentine of Rome. Up to that time, the listing for that day in the Roman Martyrology was: Valentine of Rome first, then Cyril and Methodius, with Valentine of Terni in fourth place.  But in the new edition of 2002, Cyril and Methodius are first, the fanciful Valentine of Rome is second, and the genuine Valentine of Terni has disappeared.