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Lovers, Lancelot and Lupercalis


By Jessie

February 14th is St. Valentines’ Day, traditionally a time of lovers, cards, flowers… and chocolate! Restaurants are booked out by couples who dine upon champagne and set-course menus; anonymous love notes are furtively delivered by secret admirers; shy, stolen glances blossom into a passionate affair or - for the not so lucky - unrequited love rears its ugly head, crushing amorous hopes and dreams...

Well, that’s the myth, anyway!

This year, I decided to research the origins of St. Valentine’s Day to discover how this dedicated day of love and romance came to be. Harking back to ancient times, February 14 has an intriguing history (and I’m very pleased to report, was not invented by cunning florists in collusion with the greeting card industry!)


Early History


It is commonly thought that St. Valentine’s Day gets its name from a Christian saint – what’s not so well-known is that numerous early Christian martyrs were called Valentine; up until 1969, the Catholic Church formally recognised eleven Valentine’s Days. The two saints connected to February 14th are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, although the romantic significance of either of the two is not recorded in any Early Medieval biography.

In Ancient Rome, the fertility rites of Lupercalia (or ‘Wolf Festival’) were observed between the 13th – 15th February. These annual rituals were connected to the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Priests would travel to the cave where the wolf-mother allegedly lived (called the Lupercal) and sacrifice two dogs and a goat. Incidentally, a highly decorated cavern 50 feet below the Emperor Augustus' palace was discovered by archeologists in October 2007 which may yet prove to be the remains of the Lupercal cave.

The blood from the slaughtered beasts would be scattered in the streets as an offering to encourage fertility and purity for the coming year. A sacrificial feast followed, and noble youths would cut thongs from the skins of the carcasses, running through the streets striking people who crowded near. Girls and young woman would line up to receive lashes from the thongs which were thought to bring fertility and ease the pains of childbirth.

One of the customs of Lupercalia was name-drawing. On the eve of the celebrations, the names of young Roman girls would be written on slips of paper and placed into a jar. Each young man would draw a girl’s name, who would then become his partner for the duration of the festival.


Medieval Times


The earliest recorded mention of St. Valentine’s Day associated with romantic love appears in Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa. 14th Century); a poem which celebrated the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia:

 For this was on seynt Volantynys day
 Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese
[choose] his make [mate]. 

In the Middle Ages, the concept of courtly love became popular amongst the royals, nobles and other courtiers in the sovereign’s court. As defined by author Francis X. Newman, courtly love was "a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and self-disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent".

As Sir Lancelot pined for his Guinevere, a ‘High Court of Love’ was established in Paris on St. Valentine’s Day in 1400, which dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and domestic violence. Women selected their preferred judge on the basis of a poetry reading!

The earliest surviving valentine dates back to the 15th Century, and is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans who wrote a rondeau to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London:

 Je suis desja d’amour tanne
 Ma trés doulce Valentinee
  - (Charles d’Orleans, Rondeau VI, lines 1-2)

In medieval England, it was traditional for many children to dress up as adults on St. Valentine’s Day and go singing door-to door:

 Good morning to you, valentine
 Curl your locks as I do mine –
 Two before and three behind.
 Good morning to you, valentine.

Just like in Ancient times, young boys and girls would draw names from a bowl to choose a valentine, pinning the name to their sleeve for a week. It is possible that the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve” originates from this practice.


St. Valentine’s Day around the World


In Norfolk, a character called ‘Jack Valentine’ leaves sweets and presents for children at the rear entry of houses. Surprisingly, many children are scared of this figure even though he brings gifts.

There is a proverb in Slovenia which declares “St Valentine brings the keys of roots”, and it is widely thought that plants start to grow on February 14th. On this day, work begins for the year in the vineyards and fields, and it is also said that birds propose to each other or marry on the day.

In recent times, St. Valentine’s Day has become popular throughout Asia – largely due to successful advertising and marketing campaigns! It has become an obligation for many women to give chocolate to male co-workers, a practice known in Japan as giri-choko, from the words giri (“obligation”) and choko (“chocolate”). On March 14, a reciprocal day called White Day allows the men to return the favour with white chocolate or marshmallows.

Persian culture celebrates Sepandarmazgan as a day dedicated to love. Held on 29 Bahman in the jalali solar calendar, the equivalent date in the Gregorian calendar is the 17th February. Due to government restrictions the day’s events, which include young couples buying gifts for each other, are conducted semi-secretly.


Fascinating Facts


  • Shakespeare’s Ophelia laments that “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day” in Hamlet.
  • The commercialisation of St. Valentine’s Day can be traced to an American, Esther Howland, whose father ran a large book and stationery store in the 1840s. Taking inspiration from an English valentine she had received, she sold the first mass-produced cards constructed from embossed paper lace. Since 2001, the American Greeting Card Association has presented an annual “Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary” – not surprising since the Association estimates that one billion cards are sent each year worldwide, making St. Valentine’s Day the second largest card-giving occasion after Christmas!
  • Like most festivals, many customs and superstitions surround St. Valentine’s Day. Some people believed that if a woman saw a robin flying overhead on this day, it meant she would marry a sailor. If she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man but be very happy; and if she saw a goldfinch she would marry a millionaire.
  • Young children would recite verses and play games to reveal their future love. It was common to pick a dandelion that had gone to seed, take a deep breath and blow the seeds into the wind. The number of seeds that remained on the stem would be the number of children you would have. Another game was to twist the stem of an apple, reciting the names of five boys or girls you might marry. The name spoken as the stem falls off would be your future husband or wife.



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Lovers, Lancelot and Lupercalis

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