Though popular modern sources link unspecified Greco-Roman February
holidays alleged to be devoted to fertility and love to St Valentine's
Day, Professor Jack Oruch of the University of Kansas argued that prior to Chaucer,
no links between the Saints named Valentinus and romantic love existed.
Thus, it is immaterial to the history of Valentine's Day whether or not
in the ancient Athenian calendar the period between mid-January and mid-February was the month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.
In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia,
observed February 13 through 15, was an archaic rite connected to
fertility, without overtones of romance. Lupercalia was a festival
local to the city of Rome. The more general Festival of Juno Februa, meaning "Juno the purifier "or "the chaste Juno," was celebrated on February 13-14. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) abolished Lupercalia.
While it is a common opinion that the Christian church may have
decided to celebrate Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in
an effort to christianize celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia, no connection has been demonstrated.
Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Occleve (1412)
Chaucer's love birds
While some claim the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer this may be the result of misinterpretation. Chaucer wrote:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. (When they were married eight months later, he was 13 or 14, and she was 14.)
Readers have uncritically assumed that Chaucer was referring to
February 14 as Valentine's Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely
time for birds to be mating in England. Henry Ansgar Kelly has pointed
out that in the liturgical calendar, May 2 is the saints' day for Valentine of Genoa. This St. Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307.
Chaucer's Parliament of Foules is set in a fictional context
of an old tradition, but in fact there was no such tradition before
Chaucer. The speculative explanation of sentimental customs, posing as
historical fact, had their origins among eighteenth-century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler, the author of Butler's Lives of Saints,
and have been perpetuated even by respectable modern scholars. Most
notably, "the idea that Valentine's Day customs perpetuated those of
the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present"
Medieval period and the English Renaissance
Using the language of the law courts for the rituals of courtly love, a "High Court of Love"
was established in Paris on Valentine's Day in 1400. The court dealt
with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were
selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading.
The earliest surviving valentine is a fifteenth-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his "valentined" wife, which commences.
Je suis desja d'amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
(Charles d'Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2)
At the time, the duke was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
Valentine's Day is mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600-1601):
To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)
Valentine's Day postcard, circa 1910
The reinvention of Saint Valentine's Day in the 1840s has been traced by Leigh Eric Schmidt. As a writer in Graham's American Monthly observed in 1849, "Saint Valentine's Day... is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday." In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland took
her inspiration from an English valentine she had received, so clearly
the practice of sending Valentine's cards had existed in England before
it became popular in North America. The English practice of sending
Valentine's cards appears in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mr. Harrison's Confessions
(published 1851). Since 2001, the Greeting Card Association has been
giving an annual "Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary."
The U.S. Greeting Card Association
estimates that approximately one billion valentines are sent each year
worldwide, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of
the year behind Christmas. The association estimates that women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.
Since the 19th century, handwritten notes have largely given way to mass-produced greeting cards.
The mid-nineteenth century Valentine's Day trade was a harbinger of
further commercialized holidays in the United States to follow.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the practice of
exchanging cards was extended to all manner of gifts in the United
States, usually from a man to a woman.Such gifts typically include roses and chocolates packed in a red satin, heart-shaped box. In the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine's Day as an occasion for giving jewelry. The day has come to be associated with a generic platonic greeting of "Happy Valentine's Day." As a joke, Valentine's Day is also referred to as "Singles Awareness Day." In some North American elementary schools,
children decorate classrooms, exchange cards, and eat sweets. The
greeting cards of these students often mention what they appreciate
about each other.
The rise of Internet popularity at the turn of the millennium is
creating new traditions. Millions of people use, every year, digital
means of creating and sending Valentine's Day greeting messages such as
e-cards, love coupons or printable greeting cards.