BY Peter Diamond | February 14 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


A love that didn’t count the cost

On St Valentine’s Day, Peter Diamond finds the saint’s life and death are a long way from hearts and flowers

In the majority of high-street shops and supermarkets in the weeks leading up to St Valentine’s Day, you’re likely to find a plethora of pink cards, red roses, heart-shaped boxes of Thorntons chocolates, and decor with nearly-naked chubby cherubs shooting hearts with bows and arrows.

The real St Valentine, an early Christian martyr who was bludgeoned and beheaded for his Faith, is an image which couldn’t be further from the one so expertly marketed at us in 2020.

It’s also a far cry from a ritual historically celebrated on February 14 in early Roman times, where men ran through the streets slapping women with the flesh of recently-sacrificed animals in an act which was said to improve fertility in the female. Pretty disgusting, right?

So why did a saint with such a gruesome death come to be associated with a festival about love, chocolates, and gushing Hallmark sentiment?


Different saints?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, at least three different St Valentines were recorded in early histories of martyrs under the date of February 14. There are also accounts of an African St Valentine, an early Christian who was persecuted along with his companions, but it seems that nothing else is known about this possible saint.

The St Valentine celebrated today may have been two different people. One account holds that St Valentine was a priest in Rome, and the other says that he was a bishop of Interamna (modern-day Terni). Both were persecuted and ultimately killed for their Faith, and buried somewhere along the Flaminian Way, an ancient Roman road leading from Rome over the Apennine Mountains to Ariminum on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It is also possible that these men were both the same person.

St Valentine—whether priest or bishop—was martyred on February 14, now celebrated as Valentine’s Day and, according to most sources, met his end after a spending a period of time imprisoned and being subject to a serious beating followed by a beheading. One can only imagine the sheer brutality that must have existed in ancient Rome at that time.



The saint was one of the first Christian martyrs when the general persecution of Christians started in the Roman empire.

History tells us it was especially around the middle of the third century that a crisis occurred in the Roman world which caused turmoil in the empire. The Third Century Crisis, as it is known, is associated with barbarian incursions and rampant instability, particularly amongst the politicians of the day.

As a result of that instability, the first general persecutions of Christians began, paving the way for many martyrs in the Church, including St Valentine.

St Valentine’s story spread quickly and soon there were devotions in his name, with Pope Julius I having a basilica dedicated to the saint built approximately two miles from Rome, over the saint’s burial place.

His skull is now kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, and is decorated with flower crowns on his feast day.


Modern age

But where do the 2020 Valentine’s Day traditions correlate with the martyr of the Church who appears to be increasingly forgotten about in the midst of the secular consumerism, even more so than we see at Christmas or Easter?

Some Valentine’s Day traditions are, according to historians, linked with St Valentine’s life, such as the exchanging of cards or the celebration of romantic love.

“One (account) was that he had befriended the jailer’s daughter, where he was being imprisoned, and when he died, he left her a note inscribed with ‘From your Valentine,’” said Fr Brendan Lupton, an associate professor of Church History at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.

Other accounts say that exchanging cards on Valentine’s Day recalls how St Valentine would send notes to fellow Christians from prison.



“Another story is that Claudius the Goth, the Roman emperor at the time, had actually prohibited marriage amongst soldiers,” said Fr Lupton.

“He felt that if soldiers were married, they’d be less devoted to the army, especially at that time when they needed as many troops as possible. So there was a legend that Valentine actually had married soldiers in secret.”

It has also been suggested over the years that another reason St Valentine’s Day may have come to be celebrated as a day of love was because the bird-mating season was thought to begin around mid-February.

“St Valentine’s Day, as it is known today, was also instituted as a substitute for a cruder Roman holiday at the time called Lupercalia,” Fr Lupton added.

Lupercalia was a popular feast celebrated in Rome, during which a group of pagan priests would sacrifice different types of animals and then run through the streets of Rome, slapping young women with the animal hides, a ritual that was thought to guarantee their health and fertility for the year.


Pope Gelasius

“And so Pope Gelasius, he was around the fifth century… replaced the Lupercalia with St Valentine’s Day,” added Fr Lupton.

Glasgow has its own connections with the treasured Saint, with a Catholic church in the Gorbals hosting relics of St Valentine, believed to be the forearm, something no other church in Scotland can claim.

It was in 1999 that historians discovered that part of the remains of St Valentine were buried in the Church of Blessed St John Duns Scotus in the Gorbals. These are currently on display contained in a 3ft-wide decorative casket, with the words ‘Corpus Valentini Martyris’ gilded on it.

Glasgow, however, is not the only city to be able to claim to be ‘the city of love’ with relics of St Valentine also hosted in sacred sites in Dublin, Birmingham and Rome. But why Glasgow? And specifically, why the Gorbals?

St Valentine’s remains were brought to Glasgow by Franciscan monks who were impressed by the Faith of Glaswegians.


John Duns Scotus

His bones were originally taken to St Francis’ Church in 1868 in the Gorbals (now closed) where they were contained before being moved to the former St Luke’s Church on Ballater Street, which was renamed Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in 1993.

Parts of ‘Valentine’s Day’ as we know it are therefore entirely unrelated to the real St Valentine.

He certainly did not, for instance, go around shooting people (or even hearts for that matter) with bows and arrows. That imagery was taken from the Roman god Cupid, who was also a god of love.

He also did not distribute chocolates to his loved ones; the real St Valentine predates chocolates as we know them by more than 1500 years.


St Valentine’s example

However, Christians can still learn a thing or two from the example of St Valentine, even if they are not at risk of actual martyrdom and if they still wish to send an anonymous card to a friend or family member this weekend.

I suppose it could be said that in almost every act of love there is an element of self-giving and sacrifice involved, none more so than in the way Jesus portrayed on the Cross and ways in which Saints like Valentine renounced himself and gave his life for the Faith.

Hopefully this year couples can grow together in the mystery of God’s love from the mystery of Valentine.

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