Forget romance and flowers, the story of Saint Valentine is one of religious persecution and sacrifice.

For an occasion that celebrates romantic love with the giving of chocolates and roses, Valentine’s Day has surprisingly grisly origins.

The day is named after a Christian priest, Valentinus, who lived in the late third century AD and was beheaded on the orders of the pagan Roman emperor Claudius II on 14 February, a date subsequently commemorated by Christians as his feast day. But how did this bloody tale transform into a celebration of love?

The two Saint Valentines

The fullest accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Valentine can be found in early medieval texts, which reveal there were two Christian martyrs with that name.

The first tale, written down by the sixth century AD, concerns a priest based in Rome who cured the blindness of an official’s daughter. The official was so grateful to Valentinus that he and his household asked to be baptised. Furious, the emperor Claudius had the priest beaten and beheaded on the Via Flaminia (a major road heading north out of Rome) on 14 February. A woman named Savilla buried Valentinus’ corpse at the site of his execution.

The second version, attested in the eighth century AD, focuses on Valentinus, the bishop of Terni, a town in Umbria. Valentinus was summoned to Rome to help a student whose head had been stuck between his knees for three years. The bishop cured the student, which led to his father, a famous orator, converting to Christianity. Valentinus was arrested by the prefect of Rome, who ordered him to sacrifice to the pagan gods; when the bishop refused, he was beheaded, and his body was buried outside Terni.

The similarities between the two stories are obvious, and it may be that these miracle tales were originally told of the same individual, but then over time both Rome and Terni claimed Valentinus as their own saint.

A statue of Saint Valentine in the basilica in Terni, Italy. Photo: Stefania Valvola/Shutterstock.com

The history behind the legend

Was either Saint Valentine a real historical figure? Although Claudius II is not known to have persecuted Christians, several other rulers of the third and early fourth centuries certainly did. The executions at the hands of Roman authorities lived long in the memory of Christians, who told stories of these martyrdoms to inspire future generations.

This gave rise to an entirely new genre of writing known as ‘hagiography’, or writing about saints. Some hagiographies give accurate reports of the lives of historical figures, while others blend fact with fiction or are entirely invented. Even if Valentinus was not a real priest, his stories, and those of countless other martyrs, reflect how Christians conceptualised their past under pagan Roman emperors.

Christians had begun to commemorate Valentinus by the mid-fourth century AD, when Julius I, bishop of Rome, built a church in his honour at the second mile of the Via Flaminia. A few decades later, another bishop, Damasus, composed a poem in Valentinus’ honour. It was inscribed on stone and unfortunately only a few fragments survive today.

The cult of Saint Valentine saw renewed interest in the seventh century AD, when three popes— Honorius I, Theodore I, and Benedict II—are said to have rebuilt, restored, or donated to his church. Early medieval texts show it became a popular stop for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

But Terni was not to be outdone. A church in honour of Saint Valentine was erected to the south of the town, at the sixty-fourth mile of the Via Flaminia, by the eighth century. The result has been endless decades of confusion about who—if anyone—was the real Saint Valentine.

From death to love

There is no association between Saint Valentine and romantic love in the Roman hagiographical tradition. The connection dates back to the poem Parlement of Foules, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. Since medieval English calendars record the beginning of Spring in February, Chaucer evidently thought Saint Valentine’s Day an appropriate setting for his poem, which features birds gathering together to select their mates (‘makes’ in Middle English) after the long Winter.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make

Chaucer, Parlement of Foules, lines 309-310 (ed. Walter Skeat)

Within a hundred years of Chaucer, Saint Valentine’s Day was well established in both England and France as a romantic occasion which required the exchange of love poems. By the eighteenth century, people had started to invent connections between the idea of love and the Christian priest, some even supposing that he had been a matchmaker for Roman couples.

This new way of celebrating Saint Valentine—and the commercial industry which surrounds the occasion today— would have puzzled the ancient Christians, for whom it was a day to honour a man who died courageously for his faith. But the many love letters and poems that survive from the Roman world show that we still have one thing in common. When it comes to expressions of romantic love, there is nothing better than a few well-chosen words, written from the heart.

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