The truth behind the legend of St Valentine is one that’s long flummoxed historians. Legends of a beheaded priest, jailed bishop, illegal weddings and animal sacrifice all form part of the mystery. No-one has managed to pinpoint the exact origins of the festival but it seems all roads point back to ancient Rome.
Who was St Valentine?
Legend has it St Valentine was a Roman priest who performed weddings in secret for desperate couples.
After Emperor Claudius declared single men were more proficient soldiers, marriage for young men was outlawed.
Valentine defied the law and became the go-to for lovers to wed in secret.
But once Claudius discovered the forbidden weddings, St Valentine was sentenced to death and beheaded on February 14.
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But this isn’t the only legend of St Valentine to exist.
Others say he was beheaded for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons.
In this story, Valentine was said to have fallen in love with a prison guard’s daughter.
Before his execution, he wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine”.
Another, even stranger and bloodier legend is that of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival held on February 15, involved animal sacrifices in attempts to ward off evil spirits and infertility.
On February 15, priests would skin goats, dip them in sacrificial blood and gallivant around the town slapping women with the bloodied hides. Women believed this ritual would enhance their fertility.
By the end of the 5th century, Lupercalia was outlawed for being “un-Christian”.
Instead, Pope Gelasius dedicated the day before, February 14, to St Valentine — a day that years later would be associated with love and romance.
What is the truth?
Historians have never been able to tell with certainty which legend is true.
Written accounts of St Valentine date back to 500AD, yet scholars studying Valentine’s Day origins are unable to verify the tales’ validity.
Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies, says the varying legends of St Valentine bear so much resemblance to one another, the tales may depict the same man whose legend has mutated over the centuries.
How was the legend modernised?
Academics believe the first instance of Valentine’s Day occurred in the 14th century thanks to English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
In his poem Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer referenced St Valentine and a series of romantic ideals that eventually became popular throughout Europe.
Before Chaucer, there is no evidence of the day being celebrated romantically at all.