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 original connection between Saint Valentine and love is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales. In the poem “Parlement of Foules,” from circa 1381, he inspired lovers everywhere with these words:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”
Where did the name Valentine come from?
Valentinus was a relatively common name in the late Roman Empire, meaning “strength.” Historical records point to several Christian martyrs named Valentinus. The earliest reference is to a saint buried on February 14 outside of Via Flaminia, in Italy. Not much is known about this saint.
Ancient Rome was a difficult place to be a Christian. According to some accounts, Valentinus the Presbyter was thrown in jail under the rule of Claudius II 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 a jailer’s daughter. Eventually the emperor condemned Valentinus to death for trying to convert him to Christianity, at which time he became a martyr for the church. In some versions of the story, Valentinus sent a letter to the jailer’s daughter 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. The seed of this plant, now extinct, looks like a modern-day heart. Silphium was the center of ancient Cyrene’s economy because it was prized for its medicinal qualities, which ranged from treating coughs to functioning 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, the plant resisted domestication and constraining it 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. According to Scientific American, the original Cupid was a sociopath, “a devil subjecting hapless people to a toxic lust.” Yikes. Try to put that on a card, marketing department. Eventually, he turned into a fat little baby. In the 1800s, greeting-card manufacturers used images of cupids in the Renaissance style, latching on to what was popular at the time and celebrating a more innocent side of romance.