One would think that such a popular occasion as Valentine’s Day would have a clear history of the word that defines it. Since Valentine is a name, the question is not what it means, but to whom does it refer, and what did Mr. Valentine do to deserve for you to ask your beloved to be his namesake?
As this blog has learned in exploring the meaning behind everyday words, an amazing amount of the context behind names has evaporated over centuries like morning dew. Here’s what we know about what it means when you make someone your Valentine. Valentinus was a relatively common name in the late Roman Empire, meaning “strength.” Words with the same root include “valor” and “valiant.”
Historical records point to not one but several Christian martyrs named Valentine. The earliest reference is to a saint buried on February 14 outside of Via Flaminia, in Italy. Nothing is known about this saint besides his name. Ancient Rome was a difficult place to be a Christian. Under the rule of Claudius II, Valentinus the Presbyter was thrown in jail for officiating at Christian weddings. Presbyter is synonymous with “priest” and “elder,” a person in leadership in the underground Christian community. While he was in jail, Valentinus impressed Emperor Claudius, who kept him in his company. This arrangement worked until the emperor condemned Valentinus to death for trying to convert him to Christianity, at which time he became a martyr for the early church.
Choosing a sweetheart on this day dates to 14th-century English and French court circles. This fashion is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer, celebrated author of The Canterbury Tales and more:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”
[Chaucer, “Parlement of Foules,” c.1381]
So what are the implications of these saints for “Will you be my Valentine?” That you are willing to risk all for love? We don’t have a definitive answer, and would love to know what you think. Share your thoughts with us, below.