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Which Fool Thought Up Valentine’s Day?


WORDS BY Kelly Pipes

Love tokens stealthily delivered by secret admirers and walks in the park shared by sweethearts, are still Valentine’s Day fare for romantic souls. Many of us, however, make do with a cheapie card, snatched at the last minute from the local garage.

But take heart – even if your partner’s imagination can only stretch as far as a plastic-wrapped rose or a heart-shaped chocolate, just be grateful they’re not belting your behind with strips of goat pelt. For this is what passed as amore during the Roman era, when the seeds of Valentine’s Day as we know it were potentially being sown.

Long ago, in a time before Tiffany’s engagement rings, the pagans of Ancient Roman society celebrated the feast days of Juno Februtis and Lupercalia from February 13 to February 15. Back then, there was no finer display of affection than lashing the ladies with the shredded skin of a sacrificed goat.

This not so tender act boosted a woman’s fertility the revellers believed, and upped the male mojo for a strenuous three-days of frolicking with the opposite sex – all at the foot of Palatine Hill in Rome.

But Laura Hadland, senior curator for the Jewry Wall Museum in St Nicholas Circle, a bone-fide expert in the Roman civilisation, was quick to steer me away from the theory that contemporary Valentine’s Day began with Lupercalia.

She said: “It was a very ancient festival that may date to pre-Roman times, focused on purification and fertility. The goddess, Juno Februtis or Februata is  thought to have been particularly connected with this festival as she was associated with the month of February.

“Februa’ and all of these related words essentially mean ‘religious purification’.

“So there were lots of things happening in the Roman world in February, but there is no connection with modern-day celebrations of St Valentine’s Day.”

That said I can’t resist comparing some of my earliest Valentine’s Day memories with the nervous anticipation surely felt by Roman girls on February 14, the Eve of Lupercalia. On this day young men took turns to pull girls’ name at random from a ceremonial urn – a custom which must have raised a blush in the cheeks of some mushy Roman maidens.

Once the lucky-dip was complete, the newly-matched young couples spent the festival together, falling in love and perhaps getting married. Historians believe that Lupercalia was one of only a few times each year that single boys and girls were allowed to mingle.

But daydream over. Marriage was stamped out altogether by the blood-thirsty Roman Emperor Claudius II. ‘Claudius the Cruel’ came to the conclusion that Roman men much preferred warming their marital beds to dying in the blood baths that were his battlefields. So he called off all engagements and forbade weddings, in an effort to bolster his waning army.

Back then, there was no finer display of affection than lashing the ladies with the shredded skin of a sacrificed goat.

Frustrated fiancés across the Empire wept as their men set off for war rather than into wedlock. Then, as one story goes, a Christian bishop who lived in Rome around 270AD, took it upon himself to marry draft-worthy military men and their betrothed in secret ceremonies.

Inevitably a snitch turned in this romantic rebel, whose name was Valentine or ‘the lovers’ friend’. He was dragged in front of the courts, clubbed within an inch of his life and finally beheaded for his services to marriage.

Later, Bishop Valentine was made a Christian martyr, purportedly on February 14 – slap-bang in the middle of those age-old pagan festivities of fertility.

Is it too great a leap to make… to say that by coinciding the dates of this martyrdom with the festivities of Lupercalia, the Church effectively censored the pagan raunchiness, replacing it with the pious memory of St Valentine that has survived through the ages?

History books speculate that February 14 became a fully-fledged Christian holy day in Rome around 470 AD, stubbing out any festivities associated with the pagan deities Februtis and Lupercus. Saints names had to be pulled from boxes at random rather than girls’ names, in another sign of the clean-up.

Laura Hadland, for one, thinks my aspersions fly too far.

She said: “St Valentine could have been one of a number of historical Valentines, so no-one is actually sure which one the Christian Saint’s Day  commemorates.

“He could have existed at any point from the mid- to late-Roman Empire when the early Church effectively was the Roman Empire, and when it was the Roman Elite who were against raunchy sex in the lower classes – so it doesn’t really work out.

“The association of Valentine with modern ideas of romanticism are almost certainly no older than the fourteenth century, 1000 years too late for there to be a link with Lupercalia.

“The most you could suppose is a link between people celebrating love, romance, sex and fertility in the springtime – when that sort of thing is blooming in the natural world.”

Fast forward to medieval England where the cult of St Valentine grew with renewed vigour far from the Roman Forum. It is here, that poet and playwright Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with creating the link between love and romance with February 14, and the feast day of St Valentine.

In his poem The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer famously, and for the very first time, links romantic love with February 14. He writes of a royal engagement and the mating of lovebirds happening on St Valentine’s Day.

And with that, the scholars believe, he set Valentine’s mushy associations in stone to this day.

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