Saint Valentine's Day in France

Saint Valentine and the origins of romantic St. Valentine's Day

St Valentine
Getty/VladSt

Who was St. Valentine?

There are two major candidates for the honour of being this saint (in fact there are quite a lot of St. Valentines as Valentine or Valentinus was a popular Latin name, meaning worthy, strong or powerful or presumably all three.) All the stories should be taken with a large pinch of salt, but they make interesting reading.

The first candidate is Valentine of Trevi. He was made bishop in AD 197 but died after being imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome…just for being a Christian.

Next up in date order is the most likely. The  martyr Valentine of Rome (they were all martyred) has attracted many legends including his imprisonment for defying the Emperor Claudius who had decided that single men made better soldiers so outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine went on performing marriages – in secret – to young lovers.  Another version has him helping Christians escape the truly awful Roman prisons for which he was imprisoned. He fell in love with a girl and wrote to her before his death, signing off ‘From your Valentine’.

Why February 14th?

You can take your pick over this one. To some people it was the day that the Saint was martyred, or buried. A rather more plausible explanation was that it was used by the Church to clean up (and capitalise on) the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, which happened to fall on February 15th.


The order of Roman priests called Luperci went to the sacred cave where the two young children were believed to have been looked after by a she-wolf (lupa in Latin). The priests sacrificed a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification). Cutting the goat’s hide into strips, they dipped them in the sacrificial blood and went out into the streets, beating any woman who happened to be passing by with the goat hide to make the women fertile in the coming year.

The festival was banned in the 5th century AD and at the same time the Pope declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day.

What does St. Valentine do?

Well we all know he is the patron saint of love, lovers and happy marriages. But he’s also the chap who helps beekeepers and sufferers of epilepsy, plague and fainting. And finally, like St. Christopher, he’s meant to look after travellers. He's a busy saint.
 

Was it France or England who began the St. Valentine's Day traditions? 

Saint Valentine's Day and romantic France go hand in hand, though England has a role to play in establishing the connection between Saint Valentine with love. There are, of course, many myths and legends swirling around the origins. In the Middle Ages, the exchange of love letters and love tokens on Valentine’s day is thought to have originated with the start of the mating season for birds. Soon it was the turn of the troubadours and poets in the 14th and 15th centuries who extolled the virtues of courtly love.

It was the English who claimed the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love. It appears in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote:

“For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”.

But as he was probably referring to May, it’s the French who take the honors for the first official recognition.

In Paris a High Court of Love was established on Valentine’s Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts and betrayals with judges selected in a very different way: they came courtesy of the wishes of women on the basis of a poetry reading. And the earliest surviving valentine itself is a 15th-century poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife as he languished in the Tower of London. He had been captured after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and rather sadly and pensively wrote to her: “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.”

William Shakespeare also brings in St. Valentine in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet:
"Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day/All in the morning betime/And I a maid at your window/To be your Valentine."

The French also invented a particular Valentine’s Day custom called ‘drawing for’. Unmarried people gathered in houses facing each other and called the name of their chosen partner through the windows. It all seemed very romantic, but the charm was spoilt when the man decided his choice didn't come up to scratch and proceeded to desert his Valentine. Naturally, the women retaliated and the custom developed of building a huge bonfire where they burnt the image of the now hated male while yelling abuse at him, his family, his manhood and anything they could think of. It became a rather embarrassing and heated event, so was wisely banned by the French Government.

Today Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated throughout France -- a good excuse for some indulgent chocolate and gift buying and a grande bouffe of a meal.

But France has a Valentine Day event nobody else can claim. There's a little village called St. Valentin, in Indre, in the central Val de Loire Region which makes the most of the February event, celebrating with an annual festival taking place from February 12th to 14th.

More Information