For those interested in studying the history of Valentine’s Day, the literature is rather sparse and dated. With the exception of the expert scholar on the field, religious historian Eric Leigh Schmidt, comparable other scholarly works on the history of the holiday date back to roughly the 1950s and 60s with authors such as Ruth Web Lee and Frank Staff. Even thought the quantity of authors writing on the matter is small, the conversation between them is rather lively. When it comes to retracing the origin story of the modern American holiday, minute details begin to make all the difference.
Within the study of Valentine’s Day, other literary scholars like Jack B. Oruch and Henry Ansgar Kelley have been particularly interested in studying the relationship of St. Valentine (the medieval saint) to Geoffrey Chaucer and other English writers’ poetry that references the name of the saint. Oruch and Kelley speak to one another, but their specific arguments are less relevant to us for their content and more meaningful when seen as pointing to a particular moment in time of great relevance: Chaucer’s poem. His writing carried grave consequences for the future of ideas of love and romantic engagements through the budding tradition of exchanging valentines. This moment is considered unanimously by scholars to be a significant turning point in the history of the holiday. How significant, on the other hand, is not such a unanimous decision.
The movement from Chaucer’s poems on St. Valentine to the modern holiday are often linked together, the prior as having been a direct cause to the latter. This is expressed in both popular media sources as well as in scholarship. However, how pertinent this moment was for the modern holiday remains debated. Anthropologist Anthony Aveni, in his book The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays, expresses clearly how this moment— when Chaucer and other medieval poets connected St. Valentine to notions of love— was the turning point for the holiday. He writes, “The big shift from martyr to matchmaker happened in the late-fourteenth century” (Aveni, 41). In the rest of his chapter on February’s holidays, he discusses the predominating consumerism and romanticism of the 1840s in the United States as having “sparked yet another reinvention of Valentine’s Day” (Aveni, 43). From this, it is clear that Aveni places more weight in the 14th century than the 19th century, seeing the consumer culture as an addendum or “second” shift to the already-established tradition of valentine exchanges and the Valentine holiday since Chaucer’s time. On the other hand, religious historian Schmidt ardently believes the 19th century to be the moment where the most telling shifts and reshaping of the holiday took place. In his article, “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870,” he writes, “Few turns have been as dramatic as that of its transformation in the mid nineteenth-century United States. Out of the Old World folk, religious, and courtly traditions, largely moribund, the holiday was reinvented as a curiosity of the marketplace and a marvel of romantic fashion” (Schmidt, 245). While initially we may think, who cares whether the major shift of the holiday’s history was in the 14th century or 19th century? A closer re-examination will have us realize it makes all the difference because it points to the departure of an older tradition and to the beginning of a new ritual enshrined in certain cultural values. Whether those values come from 14th century English romanticism, or from 19th century American society amidst vibrant market forces actually greatly would alter the shape the story of this holiday’s origins takes. Nonetheless, in the evolution of the holiday, Aveni and Schmidt do have consensus on two major moments that marked the holiday’s shaping over the years, Chaucer’s medieval time period and the 1840s of America.
Furthermore, Aveni and Schmidt also agree on the “literary mystery” around why Chaucer decided to mention St. Valentine in the context of birds and lovers in his poems. For example, Aveni writes, “Why Chaucer and other medieval courtly romantic poets decided to link St. Valentine’s with birds and lovers choosing their mates is as much a mystery as the original St. Valentine” (Aveni, 42). Schmidt also comments, “Linking the saint to birds, springtime, and lovers was a striking innovation, and why Chaucer and his [peers] did so remains something of a literary mystery.” (Schmidt, 210). Evidently, there is a general shroud of unclarity around what could have led Geoffrey Chaucer to mention St. Valentine in his poems, a significant moment in time as we have already seen from the previous paragraph. However, scholar and writer Ruth Webb Lee, likely one of the first scholars to do a serious study of the holiday in her book A History of Valentines, is more optimistic in drawing such links and connections.
While Lee doesn’t specifically make reference to the moment of Chaucer’s poem, she does incorporate and take a stance on another contentious area in the history of Valentine’s Day: the Roman festival Lupercalia and how it fits into the history of the holiday. Schmidt completely shies away from even a mention of the pagan festival is in his article. While he narrates the holiday’s evolution as a flow from St. Valentine to Chaucer onward to a culture of valentines cards and then undergoing various faces of commercialization, he doesn’t mention the potential Roman origin myths at all nor does he link St. Valentine to anything romantic or love-related (as the holiday now encompasses). He writes, “St. Valentine was remembered, like many other saints, for steadfastness in the face of a torturous martyrdom and for miraculous cures— not for any special affinities with the lovelorn.” (Schmidt, 210). However, scholar Ruth Web Lee certainly does take such liberties in connections. Lee writes, “Some skeptics have thought that there is no connection whatever beyond the holy man of the third century and the custom of exchanging lace-paper conceits popularly known as valentines, beyond the fact that the saint died on the fourteenth day of February. They seem, however, to be somewhat in error.” (Lee, 5). By some skeptics, she could very well be referring to scholars like Schmidt. Schmidt wrote in the 1990s, and Lee in the 50s, so they clearly aren’t speaking directly to one another (knowingly, at least), yet they are in conversation. She finds it easy to see how the Lupercalia, St. Valentine, and the romantic valentine cards all connect, while Schmidt doesn’t dare to make such bold connections. Lee writes, “Legend has it that the priest [St. Valentine], while waiting execution, formed a friendship with the blind daughter of his jailor, whose sight he was able to restore. Doubtless saddened by his fate, he wrote a farewell message to her on the eve of his death and signed it, From your Valentine. If true then it was the origin of an expression which has been used millions of times over the centuries” (Lee, 6).. For Lee, the link is obvious between the holy-day of St. Valentine’s death and the modern holiday about love. She goes on to say, “The date of the beheading of the St. Valentine is given as February 14, of the year 270. His martyrdom would seem to have no relationship whatever with the exchanging of valentines, but there is a direct, though accidental link, for his death occurred at the time of year when the holiday spirit was much in evidence.” (Lee, 5). She is talking about the common Roman festival that took place around that time, Lupercalia. Lee uses the legends and myths around the origins of Valentine’s Day to create a cohesive narrative that brings in all faces of cultural and social history and paints a potential origin story of the holiday day, while Schmidt refuses to acknowledge any mention of such legendary details such as the the Roman pagan festival or St. Valentine’s status of lover. Aveni, without going as far as Lee does in making such close connections, mentions both the Roman festival and St. Valentine’s possible link to love, leaving it at that for the reader to decide which one may hold truer, if either. Lee seems to see the various evidences and anecdotes of the origin stories as a “1+ 1 = 2” scenario, Aveni in the middle, and Schmidt not so much buying into some of the earlier myths from antiquity.
From all this, a question arises: how much are we willing to buy into myths and legends? Do they negate “facts” or are myths very much a part of the realities we live? Among these scholars, their view on what is “fact” vs. “fiction” seems murkier, a place where I may serve as the merging link. Valentine’s Day proves a fascinating case study not only as a way to show how old traditions were merged, altered, and “refashioned” into new secular rituals in 19th and 20th century America, as Schmidt demonstrates, but also as a way to further examine notions of “myth,” reality,” and where the two can and at times do converge. From this, I hope to build the case for how Valentine’s day continues to be its own kind of contemporary folk ritual— grounded in its own, values, and sentimentalism. It’s just as much a vibrant holiday today as it was back then. However, now the American retail store plays a much larger role.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28, no. 4 (December 1993): 209–45. https://doi.org/10.1086/496627.
Aveni, Anthony F. “February’s Holidays: Prediction, Purification, and Passionate Pursuit.” In The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays, 29–46. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Lee, Ruth Webb. A History of Valentines. New York: The Studio Publications, Inc., 1952.