The history behind the heart and roses

By Holly Elliott |

When Valentine’s Day is mentioned, no doubt the idea of romance pops into your head.

The holiday as we know it is wrought with hearts, love-delivering cherubs and, of course, enough candy to feed a small village. However, the idealized day of love actually stems from far darker roots than most modern day couples would expect. Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a celebration of sexual chemistry and dinner at an expensive French restaurant.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there were at least 11 Christian martyrs with the name Valentine. The martyr honored by the Catholic Church on Feb. 14 was either Saint Valentine of Rome or Saint Valentine of Terni. According to, there were two graves found in the 4th Century, but it is likely that the two Valentines may in fact be one in the same.

The likeness of Saint Valentine most likely first appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicles of 1493. According to the text, under the rule of Claudius II, Valentine of Rome was imprisoned for marrying young couples and generally helping Christians at a time when it was a highly unpopular viewpoint. Claudius actually took a liking to the prisoner until Valentine tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity. It was then that the unfortunate Valentine was sentenced to death. He was “beaten with clubs and stones and then beheaded outside of Flamian Gate.” What a lovely tale. Seriously though, other than the marriage aspect, what does Saint Valentine have to do with romantic love?

Most historians and scholars would argue, not a lot. Saint Valentine of Rome is more well known for being a legendary mascot for the holiday rather than for the work he did during his life. Two 18th Century historians, Alban Butler and Francis Douce, suggested the Valentine’s Day might have been an attempt to replace the Pagan holiday, Lupercalia, which was a fertility festival celebrated annually from Feb. 13 to 15. Butler and Douce believed that after the holiday became a Christian one, people continued to celebrate without much questioning.

Another theory, proposed by professor and theorist Jack Oruch from the University of Kansas, is that Valentine’s Day was not a Romantic holiday until Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules” was published in 1383. The first recorded line that established Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love is, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day, whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” However, critics point out that he is probably not referring to Valentine’s Day as we know it because it is highly unlikely for birds to be mating in mid-February. Regardless, this Valentine’s reference predates any other work about the holiday, which makes it the first literature to suggest Valentine’s Day as a passionate celebration.

Chaucer is likely the reason why Valentine’s Day flourished during the period of High Courtly Love, leading to a progression toward love-based art, poetry, and literature. By the 18th Century, hand-made cards, chocolates and symbols of love became a staple of the holiday. According to, that is when someone finally decided to cash in on the holiday. In the 1840s, Esther Howland of Massachusetts began selling cards with lacey hearts and illustrations. The holiday has become gradually more commercial over the years, and today it is one of the most prosperous holidays for Hallmark. And that’s the story of how a holiday went from being about a martyr who helped the less fortunate to being a flourishing holiday of desire and gifts. For other examples, see Christmas and Easter.

So this year when you are munching on a box of Whetstone Chocolates, take a moment to recognize that if it weren’t for developments made by people like Geoffrey Chaucer and Esther Howland, you may not be enjoying candy, cards or dinner at a fine French restaurant this Feb. 14.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Be the first to comment on "The history behind the heart and roses"

Leave a comment