Valentine, oh Valentine, where didst thou go wrong?

And whatever happened to Saint Valentine’s contemporaries: Saint Austrebertha, Saint Eormenhild, Saint Eulalia, and Saint Scholastica? February was their month, too. It all began a long time ago.

Based on my admittedly cursory research, it seems the Romans had a nifty thing going back in the day–the “day” being somewhere around 753 B.C., not coincidentally, the year Rome was founded. They called it Lupercalia, which to me, brings to mind supercali-whatever. Totally different deals.

Sorry. So, Lupercalia….

In the original version a handful of young males, presumably of noble birth, would be given the task of memorializing the occasion.  This was accomplished via a two-part ritual. The first involved the sacrifice of a goat and a dog. (Why a dog? Lord only knows. One early Roman writer blamed the tradition on the Greeks.) The animals’ blood was then smeared on the foreheads of the young volunteers who would run naked, laughing and carrying on around the Palatine amid a crowd of onlookers. Meanwhile, priests were busy skinning the goat and cutting the hide into strips.

Part two of the ritual involved passing out the strips of goatskin with which the naked memorializers would whip female members of the audience, presumably to ensure fertility. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

To be fair, there actually was a sort of logic involved. The festivities were held in the approximate area where the legendary Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, the Lupercal. Goats were long considered symbols of fertility, so one might understand why the ancients would whack one in honor of the occasion. Evidently, dogs were considered the enemies of wolves, thus making their sacrifice somewhat more understandable as well.

I’m still pondering the business of naked lads whipping the ladies into a frenzy with strips of goat hide. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for me. But hey, we make a big deal out of a fat guy zipping around the world in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer. What gives us the right to be critical of how others celebrate their holidays?

According to various reports, these rituals continued for centuries, undergoing subtle changes over time. One such change involved young married women who were encouraged to bare their bodies. That began in 277 B.C. (I’m not making this up!) The annual celebration continued without other major changes until 341 A.D. when the Pope decreed an end to sacrificial killings. This surely put a damper on things, and yet the event limped on until the late fifth century when either Pope Gelasius or Felix III quashed it. Evidently, Rome had run out of naked nobles, and hordes of uncouth and unclothed commoners had taken their place. Oh, the humanity!

News traveled slowly in those days, and the folks in Constantinople didn’t get the word until sometime in the tenth century.

It seems, however, that folks rather liked the idea of fertility, and since February marked the time when many European birds began mating, it seemed only natural to find a suitable date to mark the occasion. The church provided the martyred Valentinus, who may or may not have been three different people (the historical record is foggy). Renamed Valentine, and sainted, he was honored for performing marriage ceremonies during a time when the Emperor forbade Christians to wed (approximately 270 A.D.), a service which ultimately cost him his head.

Meanwhile, the Normans were busy celebrating their own fertility celebration around the same time of year which they called Galatin’s Day. Some historians claim there’s enough similarity between the names Valentine and Galatin that some morphing of the two events likely occurred.

During the dreadful “dark ages” little changed until Geoffrey Chaucer happened along in the 14th century. (Finally, something about writers and/or writing!) He penned the poems “Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars” which put a more romantic spin on the holiday.

Roughly a hundred years after Chaucer’s poetry appeared, so did the first valentine love letter. The Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife from his prison cell in the Tower of London telling her he was “sick of love” (lovesick) and referred to her as “my very gentle Valentine.”

In the 17th century, Shakespeare mentions the day in “Hamlet” which seems to have sealed the fate of the date. And guess what showed up in the 18th century: Valentine’s day cards. Granted, they were originally done by hand, something we really ought to go back to doing. The Brits were printing the things in 1797, and a few of those early efforts now reside in museums across the pond.

And why, one might ask, would Josh delve into so much historical trivia? To sell books, of course! My latest features a cover adorned with yet another naked male, this one atop a writing instrument of great historical import. The book’s loaded with writerly stuff. And humor. Why not get a copy for YOUR favorite Valentine?

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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8 Responses to Valentine, oh Valentine, where didst thou go wrong?

  1. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Damn! Those Romans knew how to have a good time!

  2. dorisreidy says:

    I’m quite taken by the goat skin-lashing, but still not entirely convinced you didn’t make all this up. Love your lively, funny style.

  3. Sonya says:

    Informative. Entertaining — hilarious, in fact! Great job again, Josh.

  4. Betty says:

    loved it

  5. Interesting stuff Josh. If you want to keep your beer cold, put it next to my baby’s heart.

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