Saturday, 13 February 2010

To all your lovers out there (lessons from History 4, valentine's day edition)

A cursory look at your calendar (and most shops) will inform you that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. You might have noticed that last year I completely ignored this holiday, because back then I was bitter and alone. This year I’m bitter but slightly less alone so 14th February means something to me. Fortunately I have managed to suppress my awful soppiness about the holiday and actually done some research into the origins of this celebration of love and all things red (which basically means I googled it).

Anyway, 14th February is Saint Valentine’s Day, the patron saint of, inevitably, marriages, love, lovers, affianced couples, engaged couples and young people. However he is, rather bizarrely, also Patron Saint of bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, plagues and travellers. Don’t ask me why. Saint Valentine, like all good saints, was a Roman Christian who was martyred for some crime or other. The problem is that there are at least three that know of. The one we know most about was imprisoned by Emperor Claudius II in the third Century AD for marrying young people. This seems like an innocuous enough offence, but it came after the Emperor had banned young people from marrying because he noticed that unmarried soldiers fought better (maybe they spent less time moping and more time raping and pillaging). He needed all the soldiers he could get because the Roman Empire was, as always, fighting almost everyone who bordered their territory and some who didn’t. Valentine soon realised that this was unjust and so went around marrying young Christians. Although he was imprisoned, he managed to make a good enough impression on Claudius that he was not executed, until he tried to convert him to Christianity, at which point he was promptly beaten with clubs, stoned and then beheaded.

It is reported, but not certain, that he, or one of the saints of that name, sent the first ‘Valentine’. Apparently he fell in love with the jailor’s daughters and sent her a note signed ‘From your Valentine’. Combined with the marrying of younger couples there is some ground for having the Saint be the patron of lovers, but it still seems pretty tenuous. The marrying (you’ll excuse metaphor) of Saint Valentine with a festival dedicated to love may have more to do with the date than anything else. February was seen, in the roman world at least, as the start of spring and hence fertility. The Roman festival Lupercalia happened on the Ides of February (the 15th) and was a celebration of fertility, a time for purification and an occasion for matchmaking, in a slightly more random way than that used today. It would be perhaps justifiably cynical to accuse the early church is simply hijacking a festival which already existed and repurpose it as a Christian festival; they did much the same for Christmas after all. Saint Valentine died in February, or at least one of them did, probably, so it made sense to make Saint Valentine the patron of love and make his Saint’s Day a celebration of love, marriage, couples and plague… no I still don’t know why that last one is even there.

So where does that leave us? A little more educated about the slightly haphazard and pretty incoherent history of what has become a painfully commercialised celebration of love, which millions of couples worldwide indulge in and have indulged in throughout history because they wanted an excuse to celebrate their relationship, and who can blame them.

Shame I wont be able to do the same because I leave for France in the morning for a very poorly timed family ski holiday, which is why this is uncharacteristically early and why next week will probably be a collection of holiday photos. I may change this slightly cop-out tradition because you get a photo from my life every day here anyway. I won’t be updating that at all next week for lack of internet (I expect) so I will do a massive update next Saturday.

Well I’m rambling now, so I hope all those couples out there have a wonderful Lupercalia and I hope all those singles out there can impress members of the opposite sex enough with knowledge of the origins of Valentine’s Day that they find someone to celebrate it with by next year.

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