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In one of two articles in this year's Valentine's Day series, Dr Natalie Goodison tracks the origins of the holiday.

Valentine’s Day fills me with a slight dread each year. Rather than my heart being filled with amorous desire or gratitude for all the love that fills my life, I tend to lump it with yet another thing to put on my to-do list: ‘get card’, ‘sort dinner’. Perhaps it’s the commercialisation, the sense of obligation, perhaps it’s the sense of being slightly resentful that my diary is dictated by consumerism. As a historian of ideas, I frequently wonder ‘how did we get here’? ‘Who is responsible for Valentine’s Day?’ A short-sighted answer to my question is Hallmark. Hallmark began to sell Valentine Postcards in 1910, but in the wane of postcards’ popularity, soon moved to the greeting card in 1912. By 1915 Hallmark had printed and distributed its own Valentine’s Cards. Ever the cynic, I have a hard time not attributing Valentines to a calculated endeavour to soften the post-Christmas slump. Even if it this is true, Hallmark has certainly been successful! From cupids, to Valentines in school, to (the pressure of) romantic dinners, to chocolate and the greeting card: Valentine’s Day is now firmly rooted in our cultural calendar.

However, the idea of St Valentine’s Day as a day of amorous desire predates Hallmark. To find the connection, as a medievalist, I start with St Valentine as a saint and consulted the stories of saints’ lives. When I was an undergraduate, and hell-bent on my tour of Europe, I even visited the church where St Valentine’s head was kept in Rome: at least I saw a skull with some horrible flowers draped over it. The tour guide told me that Saint Valentine was said to have performed marriages for young Christians, something that was forbidden by the Emperor of the Day. Now slightly older and more dubious, I turned to medieval accounts of the story for proof of this story. Sometimes described as the most-read book of the Middle Ages, The Golden Legend (c. 1225) is the main data-base of saints’ lives populated throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. But the story of Saint Valentine in The Golden Legend does not have any data relating to love or marriage. Instead, Saint Valentine in this story refuses to sacrifice to idols, is imprisoned, but manages to heal the sight of an official’s daughter, converting many, but incurring the wrath of the emperor who beheads him (the usual death of a saint). This is Saint Valentine of Rome.

But to add to further complications there is yet another prominent Saint Valentine, this time of Terni. This Valentine, according to the Acta Sanctorum, was a bishop. His reputation reaches to a scholar named Crato whose son has been crippled since he was three. Valentine agrees to come and effect a cure on condition that Crato convert to Christianity. Valentine cures the boy and not only converts Crato but his household and multitude of others, including the local Prefect. Upon hearing of this cure, the Roman Senators demand that Valentine pray to their gods, and Valentine, refusing to do so, is beheaded.

The two Valentines are remarkably similar and while their cults were popular throughout Europe, it is frequently difficulty to distinguish one from another—or in fact with any other clerical Valentine as the name seemed to have had some popularity. What is intriguing about these stories is that none of them associate Valentine with courtly love. The statements of St Valentine conducting secret marriages seems unsupported by medieval data.

So where do we get this association with St Valentine and amour? Well one short answer is Chaucer, sometimes heralded as the Father of English Literature. In Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles, the birds gather in a meeting or parliament to chose their mate. And what date should they gather on, but Saint Valentine’s Day:

‘For this was on seynt Valentynes day,                        

Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make’

(For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every fowl comes to choose his mate.’)

In fact Chaucer makes a startling four direct invocation that birds come on St Valentine’s Day to chose their partner. The final reference reads:

‘Saynt Valentyne, that are ful hy on-lofte,

Thus syngen smale foules for thy sake:

Now welcome, somer…’ 

(Saint Valentine, that are full lofty on high/ Thus small fowls (birds) sing for thy sake. Now welcome, summer…)

In Chaucer we have the mention that birds sing for St Valentine and choose their spouse on his day. Thus we have a connection between St Valentine and courtly love (here disguised as birds).

One question that scholars discuss is the exact date of this St Valentine Celebration. Is it in fact  on St Valentine’s Feast Day on 14 February? Do birds really chose their mates this early in the year when it still feels to be dead mid-winter? Several answers appear. One argument is that according to traditional medieval calendars, spring began with the appearance of Pisces which occurred on 15 February. Other traditional calendars regard February as the first month of spring. Even a medieval Calendar in Durham states that birds begin to sing on 12 February. I must say that this year by 6 February I have noticed the longer daylight, begun to hear birdsong in the early morning, and witnessed blackbirds quarrelling in a hedge over (possibly over their choice of mate).

However, another suggestion is that the Valentine’s Day referred to by Chaucer is a certain Bishop of Genoa whose feast day was held on 2 May. It is possible Chaucer knew of this Genoese Bishop and the Valentine’s Day he refers to is in fact in the month of May—which seems a more temperate month for the pairing off of lovers and birds. In courtly literature May is the month of love.

Chaucer then is one of the largest pieces of evidence that links St Valentine with courtly love. However Chaucer was not alone among his contemporaries to do so. In fact, John Gower, Oton de Grandson, and possibly the Valencian Pardo all make references to Valentine’s Day and courtly love. Thus Chaucer’s reference to St Valentine is one among others by his contemporaries in the late fourteenth century demonstrating the cultural association of St Valentine with mate choosing. Whether Chaucer alone is responsible for this suggestion and others copied him is less certain. What is interesting is that writers, such as Chaucer and Gower, who were deeply interested in the concept of courtly love, make much of St Valentine’s Day. They seem either1)  to reflect a notion that was popular in medieval society, of St Valentine’s association with courtly lovers, or 2) they are in fact responsible for propagating the connection themselves. Thus courtly medieval literature has an important part to play with St Valentine and his romantic associations.

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  • Dr Natalie Goodison is a Teaching Fellow in our Department of English Studies. We are one of few university English departments in the world who teach and research in literature produced in Britain from the early medieval period to the present day as well as in anglophone literature from across the globe. Our Department of English Studies has been ranked Top 50 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2022. 



Kelly, Henry Ansgar, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (Leiden: Brill, 1986)

Oruch, Jack B. ‘St Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February’, Speculum 56.3 (1981), 534-565


Acta Sanctorum, Feb., 2:752-54 and 757-58

Jacobus de Voragine, ‘Saint Valentine of Rome’ in The Golden Legend, ed. Richard Hamer, tr. Christopher Stace (London: Penguin, 2006)

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)