The way we were: Love’s labour

Extracts from writings about St Valentine’s Day
January 25, 2012
The Roman martyr St Valentine, commemorated on 14th February, the day of his burial

From The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999) by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens:

St Valentine was a fourth-century Roman martyr with no obvious connection with lovers. The tradition that birds began to sing about this time gave rise in the late 14th century to a belief, attested by Chaucer in “The Parliament of Fowls” and contemporaries both English and French, that they chose their mates on 14 February… This amorous behaviour passed from birds to human beings; in modern times it has been exported to other countries, even Japan, where it has mutated into a requirement for women to give chocolates to men, in particular their superiors at work. Traditionally, a valentine might be chosen for the coming year in one of three ways: according to true desire, by the drawing of names on the day before, or as the first person of the opposite sex encountered on the day.

From the “Hold Fast” sermon by Catholic convert turned Puritan John Gee, 1624:

The Jesuits upon St Valentine’s Day do choose some female saint for their Valentine: one takes St Agatha, another St Clare, another St Lucy… I asked them what they meant to choose such Valentines. They answered me, that in respect of their vows, they could have no Valentine that lived here upon earth; and in regard of their angelical life, they were to choose Valentines in heaven. I asked them, whether they thought those saints knew that they had chosen them… Oh, yes, say they, we shall be honoured all this year by that Valentine we make choice of, and she will intercede for us, and to some of us our Valentine doth appear in visible bodily shape, telling us what to do all year after.

Samuel Pepys writes in his diary:

14th February 1661: Up early and to Sir W Batten’s [his neighbour], but would not go in till I asked whether they that opened the door was a man or a woman, and Mingo [the servant], who was there, answered a woman, which, with his tone, made me laugh; so up I went and took Mrs Martha [Batten’s daughter] for my Valentine (which I do only for complacency), and Sir W Batten he go in the same manner to my wife, and so we were very merry.

14th February 1662: I did this day purposely shun to be seen at Sir W Batten’s, because I would not have his daughter to be my Valentine… there being no great friendship between us now, as formerly.

A letter printed in the London newspaper The Connoisseur under the penname Arabella Whimsey, 17th February 1755:

Last Friday… was Valentine’s Day and I’ll tell you what I did the night before. I got five bay-leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty [the maid] said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it up with salt; and when I went to bed, eat it shell and all… We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our Valentine. Would you think it? Mr Blossom was my man: and I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house, for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.

From “Valentine’s Day” in Essays of Elia (1823) by Charles Lamb:

This is the day on which those charming little missives, ycleped Valentines, cross and intercross each other… The weary and all for-spent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own. It is scarcely credible to what an extent this ephemeral courtship is carried on in this loving town, to the great enrichment of porters, and detriment of knockers and bell-wires. In these little visual interpretations, no emblem is so common as the heart—that little three-cornered exponent of all our hopes and fears… What authority we have in history or mythology for placing the head-quarters and metropolis of God Cupid in this anatomical seat rather than in any other, is not very clear; but we have got it, and it will serve as well as any other. Else we might easily imagine… a lover addressing his mistress, in perfect simplicity of feeling, “Madam, my liver and fortune are entirely at your disposal.”