Chaucer, Hallmark, and Slavery: Valentine’s Day History

Ah, Valentine’s Day, a stodgy Catholic saint’s day that’s got more artificial love shoved in it than a bad YA novel. But also a fun excuse to spoil a loved one, and more discounted candy than you can shake a stick at if you can wait an extra day. But what’s the meaning behind the traditions? Here’s a bit of a skim on the topic:

The Valentine’s Day Origin Story

While the pagans started most of our best celebrations, the Catholics are responsible for this one. Valentine’s Day started as a Western Christian feast day honouring one or more early saints named Valentine (Valentinus). The two Valentines honoured on February 14 (there were a host of others that had different days) are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. For added confusion, they were both buried on the Via Flaminia around the same time. Mr. of Rome was martyred in 269 and Mr. of Terni was martyred in 273. They parted in the afterlife, however, with Valentine of Terni’s relics residing at the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni and his head in the abbey of New Minster, Winchester. Valentine of Rome’s relics ended up in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome. His flower-crowned skull is in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

In fact, for much of its history, Valentine’s Day was not associated with love. In the typical chaotic fashion of human logic, the tradition days of love were March 12, Saint Gregory’s day, or February 22, Saint Vincent’s Day. Hell, Saint Valentine wasn’t even associated with love. Saint Anthony repped patron saint of love, and guess when his day was celebrated? That’s right. June 13.

Several attempts have been made to apply a little revisionist history and force things into a cohesive timeline. Supposedly, the day before Valentine was to be executed, he wrote the first “valentine” card, to the daughter of his jailer Asterius, signing as “Your Valentine. This legend was added centuries later and widely repeated without any basis in fact. Unsurprisingly, it was published by both American Greetings and The History Channel. You’ll note that neither of these institutions have any real commitment to the truth.

The Lupercalia Connection

The next of these awkward connections between Saint Valentine and l’amour came in the 18th century. Alban Butler wrote in Lifes of the Principal Saints (1756–1759) that during the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, men and women chose names out of a jar to form couples, giving birth to modern Valentine’s letters.

There’s absolutely zero evidence linking Saint Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia, but it hasn’t stopped numerous authors from making this claim. I’m personally waiting for The History Channel’s special on Lupercalia, set to The B-52s Love Shack.

Like lots of other gross things, such as feudalism and the Plague, this practice actually started in the Middle Ages, and consisted of men randomly choosing girls to have sex with them.

So where’s the love? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Geoffrey Chaucer and the Court of Love

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose name you only know because you didn’t manage to sleep through all of your English 101 module on the Canterbury Tales, finally hammered all the pieces together. His poetry about Valentine’s Day in the 14th century marks the first romantic connotations for the celebration of Saint Valentine. In his 1382 word Parlement of Foules (No, not the one you voted for) Chaucer wrote:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
 Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.
[“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

This snippet is from a poem he wrote in honour of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, brought about by a treaty signed on May 2, 1381. Because hindsight is 20/20 and nobody looks good squinting, most people uncritically assumed that Chaucer meant February 14 when he said Valentine’s Day.

As anyone who lives here can attest, mid-February in England is too damned cold to get it on, and thus an unlikely time for birds to be mating. Henry Ansgar Kelly, a man who hasn’t read anything published after Shakespeare’s birth, posited that Chaucer probably meant the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa, an early bishop of Genoa. As it likely took place on 3 May, this makes a lot of sense, but Mr. of Genoa ain’t the patron saint of kummerspeck and marital tributes so isn’t as fun. People can only remember so many Saint Valentines.

Also because reading is apparently for losers, those that don’t ascribe to Kelly’s theory probably don’t know about three other authors who wrote poems about birds mating on St. Valentine’s Day: Otton de Grandson from Savoy, John Gower from England, and Pardo from Valencia.

Save the Date

But that’s just the earliest connections between love and an unspecified Valentine’s Day. The first time anyone declared 14 February as Marvin Gaye Day was the Charter of the Court of Love. This VIP invite, supposedly penned by Charles VI of France in 1400, describes a party bigger than Kim and Kanye’s wedding, with the added bonus of occurring annually. Several members of the royal court attended the lavish festivities, which consisted of a feast, amorous song and poetry competitions, jousting and dancing. In between getting medieval turnt, the attending ladies would hear and rule on lovers’ disputes.

Personally I’ll be starting a petition to revive this tradition. I think going to Medieval Times with your crew to see a concert and judge people sounds like a great way to spend Valentine’s Day.

The Rise of Valentine’s Day Love and Rebuttal

If you’re someone that loves their stereotypes, allow me to grace you with this little nugget. The earliest known Valentine is French. In 1415, following the Battle of Agincourt, Charles, Duke of Orléans, found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London. During his city break, he composed a rondeau to his wife. The first line cements its place in history:

“Je suis desja d’amour tanné
 Ma tres doulce Valentinée…”
— Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2

As with most English culture, after being imported by the French, it eventually trickled down into the vulgar language of the common folk. So it isn’t for a good 62 years that we see Valentines in English appear. The first is in the Paston Letters, written in 1477 by Margery Brewes to her future husband John Paston, “my right well-beloved Valentine”.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and that includes being cynical about Valentine’s Day. Take this line from the character of Ophelia:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, And dupp’d the chamber-door; Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

Roses are red…

We’ll also take a moment to discuss the default Valentine’s Day poem. You know the one:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

This tired verse is a simplification of an English nursery rhyme from Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):

“The rose is red, the violet’s blue, The honey’s sweet, and so are you. Thou art my love and I am thine; I drew thee to my Valentine: The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”

Have you ever wondered why ‘violets are blue’, when clearly they’re not?

The answer comes from the fascinating way in which colour words develop in languages. For instance, redheads get their name because the word orange in reference to the colour (which more closely matches the natural hair colour) did not arrive in England until imported fruit did, too.

Likewise purple was for some time restricted only to the noble classes due to the expensive process to create it. The word purple, is linked to the name of the particular mollusc (murmex) that was used to make purple dye back around ancient Greece. While violets do vary somewhat in colouration, the above picture is fairly typical of the European violet. Compare that to these colour wheels produced in the 18th century:

The colour of the flower is a lot closer to ‘bleu’ than it is to ‘violet’. Violet, on the other hand, is more similar to mauve. Mauve arose in 1856, when 18-year-old British chemistry student William Henry Perkin was trying to make a synthetic quinine. He instead produced a purple dye called mauveine, shortened to mauve. The name mauve came from the mallow flower, because that makes sense. But at least it was the same colour.

The Industrial Gearing Up

Returning to the long history of Valentines, we see the first inklings of commercialisation. The concept of making money off others’ dilemma between being lazy and pleasing a partner is nothing new. The Young Man’s Valentine Writer emerged in 1797 in Britain. It contained samples of love-themed verses for lovers expected but unable to write their own heart-felt Valentine notes. This paired nicely with the already growing field of ‘mechanical valentines’, cards with verses and sketches produced by printers.

By the early 19th century, paper Valentines were so popular in England that factories sprang up to produce them. And naturally, a more premium product also became available: Valentines made with real lace and ribbons. Paper lace came later, in the mid-19th century.

Postage was quite expensive in Britain during the 19th century, but it didn’t stop people sending around 60,000 Valentine cards in 1835. In 1840, the introduction of the postage stamp during Sir Rowland Hill’s postal reforms made the gesture more affordable. So much more affordable, that in 1841 Victorians sent 400,000 Valentines. This marked the beginning of the decline of hand delivering Valentines, and the sudden possibility of anonymous delivery. Secret admirers abound, along with racier verse.

“Hallmark Holiday”

As production increased, Valentine’s Day began to win its reputation as a capitalist holy day. Charles Dickens called it “Cupid’s Manufactory”, employing over 3,000 women at one point.

Meanwhile, across the pond, in 1847 Esther Howland pioneered the first mass-produced Valentine cards, made of embossed paper lace. After receiving an English Valentine from a business associate of her father, Esther wanted to make something similar.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Cadbury introduced heart-shaped boxes of chocolates called Fancy boxes in 1868. This would firmly attach the idea of boxes of chocolates to Valentine’s Day henceforth.

As handwritten notes gave way to mass-produced cards, Hallmark finally entered the scene, producing its first Valentine in 1913. The expected cynical pushback came from the scientific field: penicillin debuted on February 14, 1929. It quickly became a popular treatment for venereal diseases, like syphilis.

The range of Valentine’s Day gifts expanded in the second half of the 20th century, though cards and chocolates remain the staple items. Today, sources estimate that Americans send around 190 million Valentines every year. Spending on Valentine’s Day steadily increases year-on-year in the US. It rose from $108 a person in 2010 to $131 in 2013. In the Valentine’s country of origin, British people spent around £1.9 billion on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts in 2015. As the Internet permeates every aspect of human culture, Valentine’s Day is no exception. In 2010, around 15 million e-valentines zipped across the Internet. Or crawled, if you buy from Comcast.

Celebrations further abroad

Although predominantly an Anglo-American holiday, Valentine’s Day is very recently seeing new markets emerge around the world. Predictably, the cottage industries surrounding the holiday spearhead these traditions.

In the 1960s in Sweden, the flower industry utilised the influence of American culture to introduce Alla hjärtans dag (“All Hearts’ Day”). While halfway around the world, Japanese women give chocolate and other gifts on Valentine’s Day. The Japanese chocolate companies took their successful marketing campaign a step further by introducing White Day on 14 March. On this day, men return the favour and clean out any leftover inventory.

There is also some backlash from conservatives in India who claim that it is a harmful intrusion to Indian culture. BBC reports that Shiv Sena, a nationalist political party in India, has spoken out against Valentine’s day, calling it “Nothing but a Western onslaught on India’s culture to attract youth for commercial purposes.”

The Hidden Cost of Love

Speaking of Western onslaughts, it’s time to look at the more material ways that cultural imperialism is ruining everything.

Take those roses you’re going to try and use to bribe your way into someone’s pleasure palace. Chances are if you bought them at a European supermarket, they’re originally from Africa. A good seventy percent of roses in the likes of ASDA, Sainsburys, and Tesco’s come from Kenya.

Heirloom Roses suggests that in temperate climates, two inches of water per week (4 to 5 gallons) will suffice for growing roses. Throughout much of the year, Kenya doesn’t even receive that much rainfall per month. But the plants have to be watered, and in 2011, the catastrophic effects of European demand for cheap roses was widely reported…and promptly forgotten because we like flowers more than we like guilt.

Now you may say to yourself, I care about Kenya’s most valuable, and scarcest, natural resource. I’m going to make sure I only buy ethically grown roses. Those companies won’t give up your cash that easily, and often make it difficult to ascertain their products’ origins. One common tactic is to sell the roses by auction in Amsterdam, causing buyers to believe they come from Holland.

Fine, you say. Skip the flowers, I’ll just get chocolates. But it’s never that easy. Cacao is the main ingredient in chocolate, and the world’s largest producer of cacao is The Ivory Coast. Child slavery occurred on many Ivory Coast cacao farms in 2001, according to a report by the US State Department back when people actually worked there. A year later, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimated that around 284,000 children experienced hazardous conditions while working on cacao farms. Mm, chocolate!

So what should you be blowing your money on? Maybe something more intimate. According to industry figures, prophylactics sales increase by around 20–30% every February. And of course, we here at Oiseau de Feu know that correlation does not equal causation, but it’s also worth noting that pregnancy test sales shoot up every March. Whoops.

But don’t despair, I’m here to help you out with some eccentric, unique takes on Valentine’s Day:

Set your heart on these ideas:

Give someone a key. While naturally lovers hijacked Saint Valentine’s keys as a romantic symbol and an invitation to unlock the giver’s heart, they have another symbolic meaning. In southern Germany, eastern Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy, Saint Valentine is one of many patron saints of epilepsy, AKA ‘Saint Valentine’s illness’ or ‘Saint Valentine’s affliction’. Even now, a special ceremony at the Oratorio di San Giorgio takes place during which children receive small golden keys to ward off epilepsy on 14 February each year.

Hand out candy like it’s Halloween. In Norfolk, England, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine delivers sweets and presents at the rear door of children’s houses. Although he left them goodies, Jack scared many children, demonstrating that they have always understood the carrot vs. orange stick trap.

Feed a bee. Lending further credence to Kelly’s theory about the OG Saint Valentine’s Day being in May, Saint Valentine or Zdravko was a saint of spring, good health, beekeepers, and pilgrims in Slovenia. It is supposedly the day plants and flowers start to grow, the first work in the vineyards and fields can start, and birds marry. But none of that matters because it’s not the most popular narrative. We are all of us herd animals.

In Conclusion

People love cards, but love sex more. Your guilt taints chocolate and roses . Historians would rather be wrong than mistaken. Capitalism is awful. Also Islam relates to Valentine’s Day through the rigmarole of courtly love, but that’s a topic for another time. And if you have any questions about anything in here, including demands that I cite my sources (fighting words in the academic ring!), or if you want to suggest a topic to be covered, please drop me a line.

If you’re interested in reading more of my writing, which ranges from articles, to flash fiction, to poetry, you can check that out here. I also write book reviews.

Originally published at on February 14, 2018.