Was there really a St. Valentine?

Q. Was there really a St. Valentine? Why is St. Valentine’s Day associated with romance?

A. Yes, there really was a St. Valentine — in fact, there were three of them, and a Pope Valentine as well. At least three St. Valentines who were martyrs are associated with February 14 in the ancient martyrologies. All we know about one of them is that he was put to death with a number of companions in Africa. A second one was a priest of Rome, and the third was a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy).

Apparently these latter two were both martyred in the second half of the third century and were buried (at separate locations) on the Flaminian Way, a road that leads into Rome. In the twelfth century, what had been known in ancient times as the Flaminian Gate of Rome was called the Gate of St. Valentine. It’s now called the Porta del Popolo or “Gate of the People.” Some Acta (“Acts”) of these two saints have been preserved, but the texts are of a relatively late date and are historically unreliable.

Pope Valentine, by the way, was by all accounts a devout pontiff who died in 827 after reigning on St. Peter’s throne only a few weeks.

As for the connection with romance, in medieval England and France there was a common belief that on February 14, birds began to pair. The fourteenth-century English poet Chaucer, for example, once wrote of “St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” (I’ve modernized the language and spelling here.) The day came to be dedicated to lovers and viewed as the proper occasion for writing love letters and sending romantic tokens of affection. People who engaged in this practice were called by each other their “Valentines.”