Friday, 14 February 2014

St. Valentine: Love and Marriage… don’t forget boils, fits and bees.

February 14th, Saint Valentine’s Day, is now associated more with the giving of sentimental cards and flowers (whose prices have been vastly inflated for the occasion) than with the saint himself. This is a shame as the patron saint of lovers had an interesting life, or lives as it seems he may be more than one man, and is the patron of many other things besides.


There are three martyred Saint Valentines listed in the Catholic Encyclopaedia: one suffered in Africa (and that is all that is known of him), whilst the others are noted as a Roman priest and the Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) both buried on via Flaminia in Rome. There is a good chance that these last two are in fact one man. However, the Catholic Martyrology, which is the official ‘book of saints’ lists only two Saint Valentines associated with February 14th, one being the roman priest mentioned above and the second the Bishop of Teramo.[1] Confusion reigns – in my mind, at least.
This is definitely someone's skull in a reliquary in Dublin, but is it St. Valentine, and if so which one?


The stories around the two Valentines beheaded in Rome vary somewhat, except in the marrying of Christians (a forbidden act) and the ending. Whether he was the Bishop of Terni or a priest under arrest, Valentine was brought before the emperor Claudius II who took a liking to him. The friendship turned sour when Valentine tried to convert Claudius to Christianity; Claudius had him beaten with clubs and stones and then beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate in Rome. Not such a lovely ending.

The first written connection of St. Valentine with love can be found in the Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer (though contemporary writers such as John Gower used similar metaphors in their works.)
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
"For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate."

Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice of sending cards and ever since, Valentine’s Day has become increasingly associated with love, happy marriages and affianced couples.

There is more to Valentine than love and marriage, he is also the patron saint of epilepsy, against fainting, beekeepers and plague. The reason for Valentine’s patronage of epilepsy (and by association fainting) may be that he was a sufferer himself. For centuries epilepsy was known as Valentine’s sickness. Valentine is often pictured with a crippled or epileptic child at his feet, or returning the sight to a blind girl – the latter miracle being attributed to Valentine when he healed the sight of his jailer’s daughter before he was martyred. Valentine’s ability to cure the sick is the continuing miracle of the saint; there are hundreds of depictions of Valentine curing epileptics over the centuries and it is possible that plague was added to the list when Europe was seized in its grips during the Middle Ages. Desperate people would turn to any saint associated with healing in order to protect themselves.


The reason for beekeepers as a patronage is less clear to decipher. It could be that bees, with their pollination of flowers and other iconography of fertility, are a natural addendum to love and marriage. 
An example of the naffness of modern Valentine cards, though the bee does get centre stage.



Whoever Valentine really was, or whatever he may or may not have done, he will remain for the foreseeable future best known as the patron saint of love and happy marriages. However, for the cynical among you (as was pointed out to me), one could see a link between love & marriage and plague & boils.


[1] http://www.boston-catholic-journal.com/roman-martrylogy-in-english/roman-martrology-february-in-english.htm#February_14th

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