“This morning come up to my wife’s bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s Valentine, and it will cost me £5; but that I must have laid out if we had not been Valentines.”
—Samuel Pepys diary entry
14 February 1667
If you bemoan the commercialization of Valentine’s Day and the sense of obligation to buy a gift for your sweetheart, and assume that this is another one of those 20th century introductions, think again. By the 17th century, English upper class men were expected to not only buy gifts for their wives, but also for another woman they knew, whose name they drew, apparently not unlike the way people today draw names for exchanging gifts at Christmas.
And, as Pepys’s diary entry indicates, children were involved in the exchange early on as well, such as little Will with his homemade Valentine.
By the 17th century, the observation of Valentine’s Day was thriving in English popular culture, with the wealthier classes buying increasingly elaborate gifts according to their income level, and the peasants drawing names for the purpose of partying together, with some mind to the possibility that this year’s Valentine could eventually become one’s spouse. Clergyman Henry Bourne disapprovingly described the practice in 1725:
“It is a ceremony, never omitted among the [lower classes], to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine-day. ... Everyone draws a name, which ... is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.” (Quoted in Schmidt, see source below.)
After Chaucer and the Valentine poets who followed him in the 15th century, the church increasingly lost control of its saint, as his role changed from that of an intermediary between men and God to that of ambassador between men and women. Humanities prof. Leigh Eric Schmidt writes, “Some ambitious interpreters tried to salvage the church’s martyr by merging him with the lover’s saint,” and dates the emergence of stories that are familiar today, about performing illegal marriages or writing affectionate letters to his jail keeper’s daughter, to the 18th century.
It’s the aristrocracy we have to blame for the consumerist spin that has overtaken the holiday. Not only did they have the means to make the exchange of Valentine gifts common practice, but they were also literate, though not always as talented as their forebears, the likes of Chaucer, Lydgate, and d’Orléans, who are credited with first promulgating the Valentine poetry tradition.
The obligation to praise one’s Valentine in verse form eventually led to what Schmidt describes as “the wider circulation of greetings, love poems, and doggerel on St. Valentine’s Day.”
But we can thank the classes who couldn’t afford to give each other gifts and didn’t know how to write insipid verse for interjecting the more playful and romantic aspects of the holiday, what Schmidt describes as “a day of matchmaking and conviviality.”
“Although not wholly shorn of his religious roots, St. Valentine flourished in both court and countryside as a patron of sociability and pairing games. Popular customs of drawing lots, fortune-telling, drinking, and doling coexisted with elite traditions of courtly poetry and gift giving,” he writes.
We may no longer associate St. Valentine with pious religious acts or the sufferings of a Christian martyr, but how many of the other dozen or so saints whose days once appeared on the February calendar do you see commemorated there today?
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Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 28, No. 4 (winter 1993). pp. 209-245. Univ. of Chicago Press. (Accessed fromJSTOR database via Hennepin County Library online.)