He is The Patron Saint of Lovers and every year, just after the halfway point of winter, we celebrate with romantic acts. Men and women engage go out for meals or have a cosy night in. But what do we know about Saint Valentine himself and why and how did this Catholic saint come to be associated with courtly love and celebration of romance?
A Complicated Love Affair
The first and most crucial point to note is that nobody knows for certain whether Saint Valentino is one, two or three different saints. Accounts of his life are so different, we can only conclude that “he” must have been multiple people.
Most telling is the lack of information on “him” from AD354 when the first list of Roman martyrs appeared, generally considered a reliable record of early Catholic saints even though he’d been dead only around 100 years at this point. Other, earlier saints appeared in this document so age alone cannot have explained this omission if Valentino really was that important. The earliest record of a Saint Valentine is in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a comprehensive list compiled between the middle of the 5th and the middle of the 6th century. It lists the martyrs in chronological order.
From that document, and the beginning of his feast day which began in 496 decreed by Pope Gelasius I, we know next to nothing.
The Two or Three Possible Suspects and 11 Others
The Catholic Encyclopedia and several other sources list three different Saints named Valentine/Valentino
• A Roman priest who died and was buried along the Via Flaminia just outside of Rome
• The bishop of Interamna who died and was also buried along the Via Flaminia. His stay in Rome was temporary but while there was captured, tortured and killed. Following the burial, his followers exhumed him and relocated his body. The accepted date is AD269 though this is problematic due to the lack of information in the earlier source
• A saint who died in Africa along with a group of companions.
If it isn’t bad enough that we know so little of these three, spare a thought for the various historians who have tried to untangle the narratives to understand which man is held up as the ideal romantic. The problem is, there are at least 11 other Saints with the name Valentine/Valentino. However, the three above are the most likely candidates; the link between these and the St Valentine’s Day is tentative and based only on names. If Valentino was a real person, these could have been named in his honour.
Confusion about him and his life is so deep-set that the Catholic Church removed him from the General Liturgical Calendar but permitted local congregations to mark the day in lieu of other Saints Days. All that means is they are free to honour or not honour the Saints Day.
How St. Valentine Become the Patron Saint of Lovers?
It’s not easy to see how Saint Valentine came to be the Patron Saint of Lovers. It now appears that his veneration and association with romance came much later – as late as the 14th century. Not in Italy, but in England. In fact, current evidence suggests that our modern love of romance is the invention of Geoffrey Chaucer. His poem “Parlement of Foules” covered many themes. Amongst them is courtly love expressed through a discussion amongst birds. The poem finishes with a call for the birds involved to choose their mates which also includes a song to praise Saint Valentine.
This simple song, the invention of medieval England’s greatest writer, could be how the whole thing got started. There was no reference linking Valentine with romance before this.