There is an old episode of The Simpsons in which the town of Springfield is caught up in the celebration of “Love Day,” a holiday similar to our modern Valentine’s Day and one that Lisa reminds everyone is just a made-up occasion allowing greeting card and candy companies another day in which their unnecessary products are suddenly in high demand for no other reason than to observe the standard festivities.
It does seem odd – all the pink and red and hearts and candy and cherubs armed with bow and heart-tipped arrows. How on earth did this particular saint’s feast day become a day that makes half the Western population stomach-sick while making the other googly-eyed half lovesick? Well, I did some research and would like to briefly impart what I discovered. If you are one of the second half people mentioned above, I suggest you leave off reading this and go eat another piece of mediocre chocolate, or inhale another whiff of the roses purchased at four-times the normal price.
St. Valentine is actually not a single person at all. Most scholars confess there is not a lot known about the guy, and that he may be a composite saint – that is, representing several obscure Christian martyrs grouped together with Valentinus the Presbyter, of whom all historians really know is a name and where he was buried in Rome. He is so undistinguished that in 1969 the Catholic Church chose to discontinue the specific liturgical commemoration, though he/they still remain(s) on the standard list of martyred saints recognized by the Church.
What most people would be interested to know, however, is how a martyred saint (who, according to our best guesses, could have been a Roman priest, a bishop, or some guy from a Christian community in Africa) somehow became the poster boy for all this lovey-dovey loviness. There are some who would like to martyr him all over again if only to take out some rage on the guy who annually causes crowded restaurants, increased chocolate consumption, a rash of embarrassing rom-coms on television and in theaters, and, of course, those ridiculously-priced roses (as a side note, I feel for you if you’re planning a funeral on February 14, especially if it’s for someone who loved roses or was named after one). Let me seek to redirect the blame for this ooey-gooey madness where it more likely belongs, off of the martyred saint (hasn’t he suffered enough?) and onto the guy most people who suffered through twelfth-grade English would like to kick in the junk anyway – Geoffrey Chaucer.
That’s right, the writer of everyone’s favorite The Canterbury Tales is most likely the culprit for popularizing the emphasis on love during the Feast of St. Valentine. Why? Well, c’mon, the guy’s livelihood concerned taking Christian tradition (pilgrimages, feast days, etc.) and making them fashionable, especially to a medieval culture that was all about the whole courtly love thing.
In one of his lesser known works, Chaucer fictionalized the meaning of the holiday to play up the noble beauty of chivalrous romance between a man and a woman? Apparently, we didn’t already have an official day to celebrate that stuff. Hey, Geoff, which one should we pick? How about the feast day for which no one really remembers the point? Not only this, but because Chaucer was such a respected literary/historical figure (despite works of dubious accuracy), his new definition of Valentine’s Day caught on with later writers who were compiling detailed explanations of saints and their specific feast practices in order to make a case for liturgical veneration in a time of internal debate and reform with the Church. Thus, the fib found support that gave it some real weight.
So, there you have it. The little bumblebee card Wendy Peters dropped in your paper plate mailbox in second-grade – the one you made with macaroni and glitter and hoped to God would be as full as everyone else’s lest you be labeled a lovelorn loser and stigmatized for the rest of your adolescence – and the rush you felt from receiving that cheap little piece of paper pocked with bad spelling (Wendy had yet to master the “i before e” rule, but, man, was she smokin’ hot)… It’s all because libel wasn’t an issue back in the Dark Ages, which meant a writer that was unwilling (or unable) to fact-check just made some stuff up that he knew would play well to an audience equally uninformed in the particulars of early Church history.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!