St Valentine: Highly Dubious
St Valentine’s Day is upon us, and is widely kept—in a manner of speaking—despite the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to remove it from the calendar. In this piece, Fr Martin provides a brief history of the feast and the saint(s) underlying it.
Saint Valentine is by tradition a third-century Roman saint and martyr whose cult was only established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 CE amongst those “whose names are justly reverenced amongst men, but whose acts are known only to God”. He is included in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (460-544 CE), and the sparse information which may have some element of reliability seems to be no earlier than the fifth century. He would, in fact, seem to have been the conflation of two saints, the first a simple priest martyred in Rome and buried in a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Milvian Bridge (of Constantinian fame) and the other Valentinus, first Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), which later claimed to possess his relics . The Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (268-270 CE), the Emperor who helped to protect Rome from the assaults of the Goths—and whom incidentally Constantine claimed as an ancestor— is said to have condemned him on 14th February, 269 CE.
There is no connection anyway here with the carnal love with which St Valentine is today associated; it is possible that the co-incidence of the date of Valentine’s passio with the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia (Feb 15) influenced later beliefs. Lupercalia seems to have been many things during its long life: a rite to avert pestilence, a rite of purification, and—according to the same Pope Gelasius, who argued for its abolishment—a fertility rite. The fact that it was the same pope who established the feast of St Valentine and abolished Lupercalia probably strengthened the association of the saint with romantic love in people’s minds; however, there is no direct evidence that he intended to replace one pagan feast with a Christian one.
We can trace the explicit association of St Valentine with love—courtly love, initially—back to Geoffrey Chaucer and other medieval poets, who tied the two together especially by describing February as the month in which birds paired up and many flowers bloomed. Chaucer may be best known for his Canterbury Tales, but Valentine’s Day may well be his most commercially successful invention.
Like other saints of highly dubious historicity, the Roman Church removed Valentine from the General Calendar of saints in 1969, though he can still be celebrated locally.  He is also retained in much the same equivocal fashion by the Anglican church, though in wider (often unchurched) society his popularity is unwavering. Now widely considered the patron saint of lovers, St Valentine and his day are unlikely to lose their attraction at any time in the near future!
There are more than 10 St Valentine's in Roman Catholic lists of saints.
February 14th is now the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers known as the “apostles to the Slavs” for their missionary activity in the 9th century. Cyril and Methodius are, with Benedict of Nursia, patron saints of Europe.
Oruch, J. B. (1981). St. Valentine, Chaucer, and spring in February. Speculum, 56, 534-565.
Green, W. M. (1931). The Lupercalia in the fifth century. Classical Philology, 26, 60-69.