The event known as Valentine’s Day is both current and historical, legend and tangible practice, very old and very recent. What is the thing we most associate with Valentine’s Day? Chocolate…of course! But you won’t find mention of it in the history of Valentine’s Day. And it was not associated with that holiday until the late 19th century. Valentine mythology traversed history through 2 figures in particular: Cupid—the winged archer of the ancient Roman tale of Cupid and Psyche—and, of course, St. Valentine.
The saintly story is the classic history of Valentine’s Day. Valentinus was an early Christian martyr—rumored to have been executed in the 3rd century AD for defying Roman ordinance by performing Christian marriage ceremonies for soldiers, who were not supposed to marry. The said Valentinus may have done this around the festival of Lupercalia—a mid-February Roman celebration when an order of pagan priests would sacrifice a goat in the name of spring fertility and the health of the republic. February, in fact, takes its name from the word Latin verb ‘to purify’ (feruare) and Lupercalia was also known as dies februatus (Purified Day).
For the record, it is unclear which Valentinus precisely would have performed the marriages, as there is evidence of up to three who died in Roman arenas and thirty who bore the name mentioned in early martyrologies, not to mention a few emperors, a pope, and various clergy. What’s more, two of the latter, a priest and a bishop, are said to have been executed on February 14th under the reign of Emperor Claudius II (268 to 270), both, according to their passions (7th-century stories of their martyrdom) for performing a cure and converting a family to Christianity. Those beheadings, which cleaved Valentine in two, made his body and his head relics. Two churches in Rome and an abbey in England claimed possession of the parts in the Middle Ages. A monk supplied a holy etymology for his name: “valens tyro,” or soldier of Christ. Together the qualities attributed to Valentine post facto gave him status as the February saint, seem to have connected him to birds, and generally promoted celebrating him as a harbinger of spring—and mating?
Yes, what about Cupid? Jack Oruch, who retired from the University of Kansas and finds the above-mentioned historical reconstructions of Valentinus' holiday problematic, hatched a theory in 1981 that Chaucer is the source of our modern Valentine’s Day practices. In the bard’s Parliament of Fowls (written before the Canterbury Tales for which he is known), he journeys through a garden of delight. Significantly, it is St. Valentine’s Day, and after sightings of Cupid, Venus, a host of other deities, and a pantheon of women rulers, he arrives at a hill of flowers to find Nature herself speaking to a gathering of fowl. Nature has brought the birds together on this day, as is her custom, to choose a mate. In the last stanzas of the poem, Nature reminds the assembly that “Seynt Valentynes” is the ideal moment to couple. The birds then invoke the saint and bid him welcome summer. Indeed, scholars since have found no earlier evidence formally connecting Valentine, Cupid, and fertility.
Once that connection was made, St. Valentine’s Day became a day to express love. The oldest known Valentine note, currently enshrined at the British Library, is a French farewell poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife Bonne of Armagnac in 1415, the year he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sadly, she died that year. Margery Brews sent the oldest 2/14 missive in the English language to her beau, John in 1477.
And it appears Britain also conserves the world’s first printed Valentine’s Day card sent from Catherine Mossday to Mr. Brown, perhaps the year of its printing, 1797.
But before cards could take on the look we expect them to have today, Raphael (most notably among Florentine artists) had to turn angels into putti (youthful cherubs) in his late Renaissance fresco to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Superimposing a juvenile Seraphim onto the dashing Cupid of Roman mythology yields this now-familiar boy in the detail of this late 16th-century image of Lupercalia. (Circle of Adam Elsheimer, 1578-1610)
He seems altogether too young for coupledom and nonetheless controls it. His youth makes him innocent, so his arrow pricks its target with love’s first blush. He is naked, but so young and anatomically demure that he embodies chastity. A few centuries later, in the mid-19th century, Victorians borrowed the pudgy cherub for the cards they sent on Valentine’s Day. Thus, was born the symbol needed to usher in a modern mythology, visible on this card for Lady Taylor (1855), about the holiday as a day not for mating, but for dating and romance.
Enter the gift of chocolate on Valentine’s Day. The romantic bonbon made its way into a box after centuries of Europeans drinking chocolate, as per the Aztec and Mayan way (see all earlier posts on this site!). In the first half of the nineteenth century, as the motor of the Industrial Revolution started up, a few inventive people turned drinking chocolate into a moldable treat. Conrad van Houten used a hydraulic press to squeeze out about half the butter from the bean, leaving rich, dry nib that could be ground into a soft powder, known as Dutch cocoa today. That powder proved crucial to the stability of molding chocolate as Joseph Fry experimented with mixes of cacao powder, sugar and ground cacao bean to create a substance both malleable and dense enough to be pressed into a bar. He succeeded for the first time circa 1847. Richard Cadbury exploited the new technology that separated butter from nib in the 1860s to alter their ratio and craft chocolate into bonbon candies.
That very Cadbury, knowing he was on to something, launched his bonbons and sold them circa February 1868 as the sweet key to a woman’s heart—which is the shape he chose for the box. Cupid may well have sat atop the box, part of the typically lavish decoration, as a symbol of chocolate as the route to love. And in this age of bustling commercialization—which included the steam engine for manufacturing in mass quantity and the Uniform Penny Post for transport— all the ingredients were in place for a chocolate romance to take the world by storm. In the US circa 1912, Stephen Whitman created the first iconic branding box for his chocolates, one many know well, as it had viral success nationally at drug stores. Their ads of the first half of the 20th century attest already to how well chocolate markets romance and romance markets chocolate.
For Further Reading
Green, William M. "The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century," Classical Philology, Vol. 26, no. 1 (1931); 60-69.
Oruch, Jack B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February," Speculum, Vol. 56, no. 3 (1981); 534-565.
Peverley, Sarah. "St Valentine’s – a minor day in a medieval calendar packed with festivals," The Conversation, 13 February, 2017.