Saturday, February 9, 2013

Valentine's Day, Third Century Style

By Nancy Bilyeau

I'm delighted to be a part of Maria Grace's Hearts Through History Hop. This blog hop gives me a chance to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: researching the often strange and surprising origins of our culture's holidays, whether it's Halloween or New Year's Day.

Now clearly this hop is the occasion for a blog post about romance. Believe me, I would like to be able to deliver a sweet and touching historical anecdote. I tried. I really did. But you don't find hearts and flowers when you get to the beginning of the story of Valentine. You find martyrdom, imprisonment, plague, and death by clubbing. It's hard to conceive of anything less romantic than death by clubbing.

The Catholic Church distanced itself from St. Valentine's Day a while ago, and not because of any sort of distaste for chocolate hearts or hand-holding. The evidence that there really was a person who committed acts worthy of sainthood is fragmentary. Valentine is one of the "saints whose cult is larger than themselves, so to speak," according to Richard McBrien's Lives of the Saints. In 1969, the Pope quietly dropped Valentine's Day from the official calendar of saints' days.

The consensus seems to be that Valentine is based on a Christian priest of that name who lived in Rome when the official religion was still pagan, during the reign of Claudius Gothicus, from 268 to 270 AD. This was not a proud time in the history of the empire. Rome did not decline steadily from the glorious reigns of Julius and Augustus Ceasar to the crumbling under Honorius in 423 AD. There were peaks and valleys. This was a valley. Emperors rapidly succeeded each other through assassination in the mid-Third Century. There was death by poison, death by strangulation, death by hanging, death by being dragged naked from the back of a chariot through the streets. The year 238 AD saw six different emperors.

Claudius Gothicus
Claudius Gothicus, the Ceasar who would, legend has it, confront Valentine, was born a peasant in what is now Bosnia and rose rapidly through the ranks of the army. He was popular with the soldiers, a very tall man who liked to fight. His specialty was knocking out the teeth of an opponent, including, once, an opponent's horse. He played a key role in the assassination plot that eliminated Emperor Gallenius in Milan. The Rome that Claudius took charge of was near-bankrupt, with rebel populations causing lots of trouble in German and France in the West, and Syria in the East. Claudius desperately needed more soldiers in the Army, and he tried to officially discourage men from marrying. 
Valentine and the Virgin

As the story goes, Claudius heard that the  priest Valentine was busy marrying Christian couples, in defiance of the emperor, and ordered him arrested. Pressure was put on Valentine to abandon his faith; he refused. The emperor decided to visit Valentine in prison. During this meeting, instead of being meek and obliging, Valentine tried to convert Cladius to Christianity. Disgusted, the emperor ordered his execution. Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded.

Three centuries later, long after Claudius died of the plague, a pope declared February 14th Valentine's day. One theory is that the Catholic leaders really wanted to banish the mid-February fertility celebration of Lupercalia. (What happened during Lupercalia? Let your imagination run wild and you still haven't come close.) Naming the day in honor of the martyred Valentine seems a wee random today. Nonetheless, the new holiday stuck, and in medieval times, all sorts of romantic stories were told. 

Shrine in Dublin
Did any of these sweet tales have anything to do with the Third Century Valentine? Only one--that the night before the rebellious priest was to be executed, he wrote a letter to the daughter of his jailer, and signed it "Your Valentine." The first Valentine's Day card was born.

It's a story perhaps lacking in historical probability. But in the spirit of the blog hop, I'm sticking with it!

To read stories from other historical writers, jump on the hop. Here is a list of bloggers:

Hop Participants
  1. Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
  2. Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
  3. Sally Smith O’Rourke
  4. Darcyholic Diversions (Barbara Tiller Cole)
  5. Faith, Hope and Cherry Tea
  6. Rosanne Lortz
  7. Sharon Lathan
  8. Debra Brown
  9. Heyerwood   (Lauren Gilbert)
  10. Regina Jeffers
  11. Ginger Myrick
  12. Anna Belfrage
  13. Fall in love with history (Grace Elliot)
  14. Nancy Bilyeau
  15. Wendy Dunn
  16. E.M. Powell
  17. Georgie Lee
  18. The Riddle of Writing (Deborah Swift)
  19. Outtakes from a Historical Novelist (Kim Rendfeld)
  20. The heart of romance (Sherry Gloag)
  21. A day in the life of patootie (Lori Crane)
  22. Karen Aminadra
  23. Dunhaven Place (Heidi Ashworth)
  24. Stephanie Renee dos Santos

I've written a historical thriller set in Tudor England called The Crown, with a protagonist who is a Dominican novice. The sequel, The Chalice, will be published on Feb. 28th in the United Kingdom and on March 5th in North America. 

If you'd like to win a signed hardcover of The Chalice, please comment below. Include your email address, so I can get in touch with you.


  1. This was an interesting piece.I thought St Valentine lived in a later era so thanks you for the correction. Kind regards, Merliz

  2. I think you would want to use this video on your article:
    It tells exactly how Valentine was captured by Claudius, and was executed, right after he wrote the eternally remembered 'from your Valentine' letter.

    Feel free to embed the video, it is using CC attribution.

  3. I'd love to!

  4. I'm Lovin' this blog hop and learning about romantic couples and bits of history!
    If I win 'The Chalice' I'm going to have to read 'The Crown' first (I'm compulsive that way).

    sallans d at yahoo dot com


    the more I am reading blog posts about the history of valentines day, the more I am seeing i myself need to do more research on the holiday

  6. Nancy,

    What an intriguing story and post despite the violence. I love that you present the beginnings of the Valentine’s Day tradition of the love letter, while my focus in my blog post is on the continuation of the hand written and couriered love letter.

    I would love to win your new and signed book, and I hope this one too is being published in Portuguese in Brazil!

    Amor from Brazil…

    Stephanie Renée dos Santos

  7. Nancy- is my email: stephaniereneedossantos at


    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

  8. I'd love to win a copy of your book, thanks for the chance!

  9. How very...unromantic. Which I suppose was that pope's point. Amazing how historical events or figures can change into something almost unrecognizable thanks to later interpretations. I wonder what Valentine would have thought of the modern holiday?!

    dancingcelt at gmail dot com

  10. Fascinating post. I have been wanting to read your book for ages.I have heard such wonderful things about it.

  11. Most interesting and informative (if not filled with hearts and flowers!). I enjoyed your post very much-Thank you! Please enter me in the giveaway:

  12. umm, yes please I would LOVE a signed hardcover of The Chalice, Nancy! I have always wondered about the validity of St Valentine, from this Catholic's POV. So many 'legends'.. but I enjoyed your snippets. What was UP with Claudius?! Where did he expect the population to be born from, out of wedlock.. ? Weird.
    MarieBurton2004 at Yahoo dot Com

  13. This blog was great. I loved learning a bit of history about the holiday. Based on your description, I haven't quite figured out why the church has backed off from the holiday though. The man was true to his faith to the very end as far as I can tell, and suffered for it. Oh well.
    - Lisa (slapshinyhappy at yahoo dot com)