The Story Behind Valentine's Day

USF professor sheds light on the popular holiday and traces its roots back to the third century.


By Barbara Melendez News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 10, 2011) – Saint Valentine may have been thrown off the list of official saints during Vatican II, but that hasn’t stopped people from celebrating the day associated with his birth.

Julie Langford, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida’s Department of History, said there’s good reason for doubting Saint Valentine’s eligibility for sainthood.  It seems there were actually two men named Valentine, one a bishop and the other a priest.

To have a good shot at sainthood, the bishop or priest would have had to be a martyr, dying for his faith. But, the two lived during the reign of emperor Claudius Gothicus, who didn’t really persecute the Christians. Add to that the fact that the stories surrounding the two men are nearly the same in detail and historians are suspicious of their veracity.

Langford is an expert on the Roman Empire, the second and third centuries, in particular. Saint Valentine is said to have lived in Rome in the third century.

“My students find this period of time so fascinating because Rome was struggling to redefine itself,” she said.  “The Romans were rethinking what it meant to be a Roman, to be a woman or man, what it meant to be religious. In many ways, that period is analogous to our own.”  

She describes a time when Christianity challenged the order of life in a way the Romans could not abide.

“Christianity was illegal and literally threatened to tear apart the fabric of Roman society,” she said.

To gain of sense of what life was like, Langford has assigned the diary of a martyred Christian named Perpetua, one of the few works that has survived from that period, to her class for reading.

 “This esteemed text shows why Christians were so frightening to the Romans,” Langford said.  “Romans valued family, then the city, then the cult or club they were attached to, while Christians ignored those ties and refused to take part in the sacrifices for the health of the Emperor.  The absolute turmoil of that time is not so different from what we’re going through today. There are echoes that speak to students.”

As for why the story of St. Valentine became suspect, Langford says we can blame the hagiographers, the writers of saint’s lives from the sixth and seventh centuries.

“The church encouraged groups of hagiographers, generally monks, who were given lists of names to write stories about and if they didn’t have facts to go on, they simply made them up,” she said.  “So it’s no accident that Valentine the priest and Valentine the bishop were born on the same day and both lost their heads.  When Vatican II started to take a look at the saints’ lives, several had to be thrown out, though it hasn’t kept some from still being venerated.”

It wasn’t until Chaucer’s time (1343-1400) that we get the introduction of romance and cupid associated with Valentine’s Day. 

Centuries later, this popular holiday with its traditions has clearly taken hold in cultures around the world.  And it looks like the name is here to stay regardless of its origins.

Does knowing the background story affect how Langford feels about Valentine’s Day?

“No, I want my candy and flowers,’’ she said.  “But I’d also like my Valentine to keep his head.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.