Moralexicon #3: The Solemn Feast of Saint Valentine, Martyr

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A note from the Moralexicographer

I had originally decided to compile the Moralexicon to be a collection of imaginary knowledge. After all, I decided, there are Encyclopedias enough to tell people real knowledge, so why bore more people with my pointless ramblings. However, for this entry I am making an exception. Due to the gross obstruction of truth in regards to St. Valentine’s Day, and the plenitude of imaginary knowledge in regards to the day thereof, I have decided to chronicle the misrepresented real knowledge of the in an effort to combat these misunderstandings and heresies.

The Solemn Feast of Saint Valentine, Martyr

Origin and History

Part of the issue with tracking this holiday is that there are three very different Valentinian myths, and two or even three possible Saint Valentines.

The most common legend, or at least the best known, is that he was a Roman priest who secretly married couples. This would fit the couples theme of the modern holiday, but ignores a couple crucial points. One, this legend is about marriage, not love in general; it is about the commitment and solemn oaths of matrimony. Secondly, these marriages, if they were anything beyond a celebration of a couple’s commitment to each other, were about protesting the emperor’s unjust wars and conscriptions.

However, the oldest St. Valentine legend deals with a priest/bishop who, rather than going around marrying people, was an evangelist. He reportedly brought a man, and his household, to Christianity by miraculously healing his daughter’s sight. This man is sometimes referred to as Valentine’s jailer, and this story has some references in the marriage legend; these healing accounts add in the details that he gave the daughter a letter while in prisoner that was signed “from your Valentine,” thus kicking off the famous phraseology. In one version of this, he befriends the emperor, but goes too far when he tries to convert him. The third—and least known—story deals with a martyrdom for unspecified cause, with various companions. However, some information from an unspecified Greek Orthodox source suggests that these companions were involved in a series of jailbreaks. This legend, at any rate, ends with Valentine being brutally beaten and beheaded for proselytizing. So, in the end, Valentine is at best a true evangelist, a witness, and at worst, an antigovernment radical. However, he is not some loving Cupid figure. His views and positions on love and marriage were presumably the same as every other faithful Christian at the time. The association with love seems to have come later.

Specifically, the association with love seems to come out of the medieval era. Specifically, Geoffrey Chaucer is sometimes credited with starting the romantic association, by propagating the myth that birds mate on the 14th of February, “for this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” This myth seems to be the true basis of any romantic associations. Furthermore, this holiday has in recent years undergone a truly noxious level of commercialization, which has maimed it, along with other Christian feasts, into something that would have probably killed the priest, if he had not already been murdered.

Controversy

Various sources mention the fact that, in all of England, there is no church named St. Valentine’s. This is curious, since the myths surrounding Valentine’s Day apparently started there. Perhaps this is connected. Perhaps the medieval English knew better than anyone else. Perhaps Valentine is just an obscure saint in and of himself. Another possibility is that Chaucer was breaking out against some multi-century conspiracy dedicated to keeping St. Valentine out of England. There could very well be nothing behind it, but it is still a point of contention.

Practice and Reform

Modern Valentine Day practices are built out the image of “cute” love, a sickly-sweet love of such impossible kindness that it is no wonder people only reserve it for one day. This is not a condemnation of acting nicely to your loved one, but do it every day, not the day a guy’s head was separated from the majority of his flesh. Instead, the day’s celebrations should reflect the true nature of the saint.

In light of this, perhaps one possible celebration would be providing to charity to people who are blind or visually impaired. It could be a day of discounted eye care, if the commercial dimension simply must be maintained. The core of the St. Valentine story is him healing the jailer’s daughter; it is through this miracle that Valentine brings him (and his household: servants, children, etc.) to Christ. The day should be a celebration of who he is, not what birds do.

On this note, another possible celebration would be the wearing of black in remembrance of those who might have passed, but who were instrumental to the formation of marriage. St. Valentine was the means to unify love, not the lover. In the marriage legend, while he helped people get married, he did not make people fall in love, and he certainly is not in love. (Well, at least not in eros. As a saint, one must assume he was filled with agape.) In short, if the holiday needs to be about love, it should be about the sacrifices people make so that people can live happily married lives.

However, the romantic traditions of the holiday are very old now, and cannot just be removed. Perhaps a more moderate path, like the second option, is more realistic to consider, but this is ultimately just a collection of facts, not social reform. Above all, we at the Shield do not seek to overhaul the traditions of past generations, but rather widen the scope of knowledge of past traditions to inform the decisions of the present