Monday, 14 February 2011

Happy Valentine's Day - Love, Blood and Geoffrey Chaucer

For Valentine's Day I thought I'd write a little piece about the day and the different opinions of where it comes from, rather than wax lyrical about the wonders of love. We all know it's great (it really is, when it's true and good) and others will be able to do a better job than I.

So where does this little day come from? Was it invented in a deep cavern somewhere by chocolate makers and flower sellers? Was there ever a single St. Valentine, who inspired the day? In fact the truth about the day is a complex and puzzling thing, with many theories about it's origins. So let's look at the man (or men) himself that the day is named for.

There are several martyred saints named Valentine, it being a popular name back in Antiquity. Bit like Dave in the modern era. Of those none exactly fit the festival celebrated on the 14th January, as little is known about the Valentine. The one most commonly associated with the day is a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II, for marrying Christians and allegedly helping them escape persecution. The emperor didn't like that too much so he had him beaten with clubs and stones. But that didn't kill him so, being a Roman emperor, he ordered the priest to be beheaded. How romantic.

Lupa, with her two adopted humans, Romulus and Remus.
So how did the day get all caught up with flowers, chocolates and cards that have annoying tunes coming out of them? One theory is that the timing of the celebration was chosen to supersede the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, just as Easter and Christmas were timed around Pagan festivals. The Lupercalia was partly to honour Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. It was also connected to Ancient Greek "Arkadian Lykaia", and was a festival of purification and fertility. During the Lupercalia priests, called the Luerci, would sacrifice two male goats and a dog. They would then smear the blood on the foreheads of two of their number who were expected to smile and laugh. Whether they managed it or not isn't clear. This would then lead to the sacrificial feast (no pagan festival is complete without a feast) after which the Luperci would cut thongs from the skin of the goats, where the remains of the goats skin and run through the streets slapping people, particularly women, in the face with the bloody thongs. In fact accounts suggest that women and girls gladly stood in the way of the Luperci to get these slaps in the face as it ensured fertility and prevented sterility. And you were annoyed you didn't get flowers.

"In days of old, when Knights were bold.."

So far not a lot of romance, unless you're particularly taken with goat skin being thrown into your face. But a change happened in the Middle Ages, helped in no small part by Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellow writers, who spread the idea of romantic love in their works. Romance was a concept that had been largely absent from stories until this point (some early Greek novels had it but not a lot of people read Greek - except for the Greeks of course). It's around this time that Valentin's day begins to be associated with love and romance and the earliest recorded valentine is from the Duke of Orleans to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1415.

So if you want to make the next Valentine's day special go find yourself some leather, dab it in strawberry sauce and slap your lover across the face for a truly authentic St. Valentine's day. Think I'll stick to the card and chocolates though...

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