Who Was Saint Valentine?

We celebrate Valentine’s Day in honor of Saint Valentine every year on February 14th—but who is the legend behind the holiday?

The answer is uncertain, really, but it involves miraculous healing, secret marriage ceremonies, and beekeeping.

The Many Saint Valentines

Various accounts of Saint Valentine seem to overlap and intersect with one another. There are about 500 recorded stories about a saint named Valentine. There were likely two Christian martyrs who made a name for Saint Valentine, and the legendary stories associated with them were merged into one. Historians agree that there may be little actual historical basis for some of these accounts, while others may be exaggerated versions of real events.

And what’s more, there were actually about twelve saints with the name Valentine. Valentinus, the Latin word for worthy, strong, or powerful, was a common name between the second and eighth centuries.

The Roman Priest Who Secretly Performed Marriages

In one account, Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, reasoning that men with no wives or children would be a better asset for the Roman military. Valentine saw the injustice of this decree and began to perform marriages for young Christian couples in secret. These clandestine ceremonies meant that the married men could not be pressed into military service, thereby depleting Claudius’s potential forces. Was Valentine trying to show the emperor that not even the military can conquer love—or is this the story of how Valentine aided in draft-dodging to weaken an empire that was hostile to his people?

Christians were a small and persecuted minority in Europe during this time. Valentine also aided many of his fellow believers in escaping the harsh sentences they faced in Roman prisons, where they were tortured and beaten.

These were serious crimes against the Roman Empire, and when Claudius found out, he ordered that Valentine be put to death. Claudius offered one way out: Valentine could renounce his faith. The priest refused, choosing rather to suffer his own torture and imprisonment, and he was beheaded on February 14. (The year is uncertain, but it was somewhere around 269–280). Valentine’s compassion, integrity, and heroic actions in the face of persecution sealed his fate as a Christian martyr.

Before he was killed, though, he fell in love with a young woman, possibly the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. He sent her a note signed, “From your Valentine”—meaning that the first valentine greeting was from the saint himself.

Stained glass image of Saint Valentine blessing a young couple
Saint Valentine blessing a young couple.

The Bishop of Terni Who Converted His Captor and Healed the Blind

Another account from the same period places Valentine as the Bishop of Terni. Valentine was placed under arrest in the house of Judge Asterius for the crime of attempting to convert people to Christianity. The judge and the bishop engaged in debate over religion to pass the time. As Valentine continued to pledge his faith to his captor, Asterius decided to put him to the test. He presented Valentine with his daughter, who was blind, and, with a guarded hope and desperation, asked him to heal her. Valentine placed his hands on her eyes and restored her sight. Judge Asterius, in awe, broke all the idols in his house and fasted for three days, and then he and his entire 44-person household were baptized as Christians. He also ordered the release of all Christian prisoners nearby.

Valentine was later imprisoned again, and this time, he was sentenced to death by beheading on February 14. Before he died, he sent a letter to Asterius’s daughter whom he had healed, signed “Your Valentine.” (Or perhaps she was the one who sent him the letter.) Sound familiar?

Both Valentines are said to have been buried at Ponte Milvio along the Via Flaminia, and since the year 496, a feast has been held in honor of Saint Valentine on February 14. However, the Roman Catholic Church removed Saint Valentine from its calendar in 1969 due to the lack of reliable information on his life.

Beekeeping

Today, Valentine is still honored as the patron saint of love, engaged couples, and happy marriages . . . as well as epilepsy, beekeeping, fainting, and the plague.  

Saint Valentine healing a man with epiliepsy
Saint Valentine blessing a man with epilepsy. Colored etching.
Wellcome Library, London. CC BY 4.0.

It’s not clear how all these associations came about. But let’s talk about beekeeping for a moment. One of Saint Valentine’s duties in the afterlife is to maintain the sweetness of honey, that bee colonies flourish, and that . Bees have long been associated with goddesses of love, like Aphrodite, Venus, or Gwen. Myths from ancient Greece and Rome portray bees as having romantic effects on humans. Honey has been used as an aphrodisiac and medicinal agent for thousands of years, and its sweet taste represents love and healing. Beekeepers, then, can represent the guardians of love in family and marital relationships.

All this is to say that Valentine watches over the protectors of love. But also the plague.

So Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, was the first to associate the feast day of Saint Valentine with romantic love.

In his poem “Parlement of Foules,” Chaucer wrote,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.

Those lovebirds were looking for a match on Valentine’s Day. Chaucer was perhaps referring to the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa on May 3, which is when birds are more likely to mate. But people took the 14th of February and ran with it.

Medieval folks had gone crazy for stories of courtly love and especially stories of forbidden or secret relationships. Now, young lovers called upon Saint Valentine for a blessing on their relationship, finding romance and excitement from the tales of secret marriages performed under his hand. In France, February 14th became a day of feasting, singing, and dancing in honor of romantic love. The French and the English penned love letters to their “valentines,” and Shakespeare’s Ophelia pines,

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

The legendary name of Valentine is now shorthand for romantic love and all the excitement and disappointment, butterflies and heartbreak that come with it. But perhaps we can remember a different type of Valentine—the type who is willing to sacrifice his own life out of a deep commitment to his faith and love for others, the type who courageously performs acts of compassion during times of oppression.

Sources

Barry, Anna Maria. “A History of Valentine’s Day Celebrations—From Fertility Festivals to the First Cards.” History Extra, February 10, 2021. https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/when-was-valentines-day-first-celebrated-cards-history-saint-valentine/.

Gershon, Livia. “Who Was the Real Saint Valentine? The Many Myths Behind the Inspiration for Valentine’s Day.” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/real-st-valentine-medieval.

Harris, Karen. “Saint Valentine: The Patron Saint Of Bees, Fainting, And The Actual Plague.” History Extra. https://historydaily.org/saint-valentine-patron-saint-bees-fainting-actual-plague.

History.com Editors. “History of Valentine’s Day.” History.com, January 24, 2022. https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2.

“Saint Valentine—Patron Saint of Beekeepers and Lovers.” Glory Bee, February 14, 2017. https://glorybee.com/blog/saint-valentine-patron-saint-of-beekeepers-and-lovers/.

“St. Valentine.” Catholic Online. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Saint Valentine.” Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Valentine.

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