Saturday, February 1, 2014

14 Things about Valentine's Day, No. 1: Who was this St. Valentine anyway?

I'll confess I'm rather fascinated with Valentine's Day, and not because I am a hopeless romantic. I'm actually not much for romance at all (with apologies to my husband, who already knows this). Rather, Valentine's day is packed with so much folklore, mythology, history, custom, and, best of all, misinformation, to make my trivia-loving, myth-busting self positively gleeful.

Since I've gathered too much information about the annual love-sodden observance for a single blog post, I thought I'd offer a bit of a countdown — 14 things about Valentine's Day that you might not already know. One curious bit each day, in no particular order, for your amusement and edification.

Let's begin with the saint himself. Or themselves, perhaps. But first, the popular myth, a version of which goes something like this:
During the late Roman empire, the emperor had become so frustrated by the reluctance of married soldiers to leave their wives and children behind to serve on the far flung perimeters of the empire, that he banned marriage altogether.  The kindhearted priest Valentine performed secret, illegal marriages anyway, and so was imprisoned and then executed for his defiance of the law. While in prison, he wrote sweet epistles to the jail-keeper's daughter, signing them "Your Valentine."
I rather like this myth, because it points to the day as an occasion to champion legal marriage for all, and to work for fairness and equality for those to whom legal marriage is denied. Even though that's no longer an issue in Minnesota, one need not look far to find plenty of evidence that the cause has a long way to go. Too bad there's no basis for it.

The marriage-hating emperor is usually identified as Claudius. But fans of I Claudius will be relieved to know that historians have determined that no persecutions occurred during the reign of that Claudius, and so it has been assumed that these incidents must have taken place under the rule of Claudius II, or Claudius the Goth, who ruled much later, in the third century CE.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, there are two martyrs named Valentine who are both commemorated on the 14th of February. Both were beheaded, one at Terni, which is about 60 miles from Rome (he is thought to have been the bishop of Terni), the other at Rome, where he was a priest. The Roman Valentine was said to have died in about 269 CE, apparently for having converted an entire household to Christianity after miraculously restoring the eyesight of the once blind daughter of his host. (The father's joy at this miracle would have been short lived, as he was executed also.)

Another account has the bishop of Terni curing a crippled child, which led to the saint being regarded as the patron of those afflicted with the "falling sickness," or epilepsy. (An entertaining overview of the various causes the saint is associated with, along with an accounting of his various scattered remains—that is, relics—is offered here.)

As with the first story, the miracle led to the conversion of an entire family of the Roman nobility to Christianity, and thus the offending bishop was beheaded. Or this may have been one and the same Valentine: "Whether there were actually one or two Valentines is disputed," says the editor.

The problem with that account, according to University of Kansas professor Jack. B. Oruch, is that Claudius II, who only ruled from March 268 to April 270 (hence the date given for the saint's martyrdom), spent nearly the entire time away from Italy on military campaigns. And there is no evidence, other than the saints' legends written much later, to suggest that this Claudius had reversed the policy of toleration established by his predecessor.

There's also nothing in the historical record about marriage having been banned. That story arose many centuries later. Indeed, none of the legends about the saint had anything to do with love or romance. That association came much later, and will be the topic for another day.

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Day, E. “Valentine, St.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 371–372. Gale Virtual Reference Library. (Accessed via Hennepin County Library.)

Delany, John J. Dictionary of Saints. Doubleday, 1980.

Oruch, Jack. B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February." Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 534–565. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

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