When did someone first choose a valentine?
Here’s what we know about what it means when you make someone your Valentine.
Choosing a sweetheart on this day dates to 14th-century English and French court circles. The act is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales in which he says:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”
[Chaucer, “Parlement of Foules,” c.1381]
Where did the name Valentine come from?
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 several Christian martyrs named Valentinus. The earliest reference is to a saint buried on February 14th 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 means “priest” or “elder,” a person in leadership in the underground Christian community. While he was in jail, Valentinus impressed Emperor Claudius II by healing the blindness of his daughter, who then 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 church. Right before he was executed he wrote her a letter and signed it “your Valentine.”
So, like the Christian martyrs who risked it all for their faith, are you risking it all for love when you ask someone to be your valentine? We don’t have a definitive answer, but it has a nice historical ring to it.
Where did the Valentine’s Day heart shape come from?
The shape of the heart is iconic of love, but it barely resembles the organ in our chests. Why is that?
Ancient coins from Cyrene, a city-state in the location of present-day Libya, show an impression of a silphium seed; it’s a shape that you know very well. Silphium is the now-extinct “giant fennel.” Silphium was the center of ancient Cyrene’s economy because the plant was prized for its medicinal qualities, which ranged from treating coughs to being used as an herbal contraceptive. It was widely used throughout the Mediterranean.
Silphium only grew in the wild and could not be cultivated. Much like the heart it symbolizes, attempts at domesticating the plant may have been the cause of its demise.
Cupid was the Roman god of love. Gradually, over time, he underwent an image makeover in the interests of commerce. Fact Retriever says “he was originally depicted as a young man who would sharpen his arrows on a grindstone whetted with blood from an infant.” Yikes. Try to put that on a card, marketing department. Eventually, he turned into a fat little baby. “This transformation occurred during the Victorian era when business owners wanted to promote Valentine’s Day as more suitable for women and children.”