Because marrying in the Church is romantic, but following man’s law is cold.
(Oh, and of course the Google doodle for today includes Political Correctness Content, the way Canadian radio has to have a certain amount of Canadian content. Just like it’s amazing how far back in the search results you have to go to find an article on St. Valentine, when this is the shared feastday of several. Especially when there’s a commercial site to promote….)
Valens, Valentinian, and Valentinus were reasonably common Roman names, borne by people as diverse as emperors and Gnostic heretics. The meaning was “strong, powerful, effective”. There are fourteen known saints named Valentine.
We know for sure that there was a St. Valentinus who was the bishop of Interamna (now Terni) who was executed on the Via Flaminia near Rome, next to a milestone. Rome’s old Flaminian Gate (Porta Flaminia) had a basilica near to it which was probably originally dedicated to him, because in the Middle Ages they called it the Porta S. Valentini. The original basilica of St. Valentine was built by Pope Julius I, a kilometer outside the gates (at the second milestone), and there are Christian catacombs nearby, as with many famous martyrs’ burial sites. But when that area became dangerous and depopulated, a new smaller church was built inside the gates. (Today that newer church is called Santa Maria del Populo.) His relics are now kept in St. Praxedes (Santa Prassede) in Rome, and at Terni. (When the outskirts of Rome became unsafe in the early medieval period, a lot of martyrs’ bodies also got moved downtown to St. Praxedes.)
There’s also a fifth century St. Valentine who was the first bishop of Passau and is known as “the apostle of Rhaetia” (the non-Helvetii parts of Switzerland, southern Bavaria, the Tyrol, etc.)
The older St. Valentine story that we know was part of the legend of Ss. Marius and Martha, Persian travelers to Rome who got martyred along with their two sons for daring to bury Christian martyrs in AD 270, on January 19th. We don’t have the legend in any more recent form than the 5th century, so it’s probably not super reliable; but it does feature St. Martha getting drowned to death near a nymphaeum (public water source dedicated to the nymphs of water), which is kinda cool. Nymphaeum Catabassi was at the thirteenth milestone outside of Rome, along the Via Cornelia. (Supposedly this is a few miles past another old church built by Pope Julius I, S. Rufina and Secunda at Buccea, later called Selva Candida. I’m sorry to say that the modern church there looks like a mall.) Anyway, that legend tells us that Valentine was a holy priest who refused to renounce Christianity and was beaten to death with clubs.
The newer story says that the authorities were upset with another St. Valentine because he helped a young Christian man and woman to get married, obeying God’s law rather than the oppressive power of men. It wasn’t politically correct, and it got him killed. (And this sort of thing does happen to priests, even today, often because a family is unhappy over the bride or groom converting to Catholicism or daring to choose love over dowry money.)
This story seems to have surfaced in the Renaissance, both supporting the new emphasis in Church teaching on marriage as a Sacrament, and probably growing out of the medieval English factoid that birds choose their mates on February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day. (Which in England is about right, even though birds around here don’t start nearly that early.) The legend goes with the St. Marius date of AD 270, and thus is stuck with Claudius II as emperor. He was known for beating back the Goths, so the legend has fun claiming that he forbade single men to marry so that they’d be free to join the army. (Perhaps a satirical take on contemporaries who felt that early marriage ruined a young man’s drive to succeed, and thus favored middle-aged men marrying teenaged girls, despite the obvious problems created by age disparity and unattached young men.) The couple who got married in the legend, Sabinus the centurion and his beloved Serapia, seem to be making a comeback these days.
There’s also a famous Valentine who comes into the legends of Charlemagne; but he and his twin brother Orson were famous knights, not saints.
A lot of people like to connect St. Valentine’s Day to Lupercalia’s fertility festival (except men don’t run through the streets symbolically whipping fertility into young married women), or to “Juno Februata” (except Juno Februtis was all about purification, and Valentines are a medieval invention). Here’s a good page on the Roman festivals in February, and why they saw it as a purification month as well as the barest beginning of spring.
Unfortunately most of the online materials come from the days when people were not being very helpful about the legends. Sigh. Here are some boring articles that helped me crossreference.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints article on St. Valentine. His article on Ss. Marius and Martha.
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica on St. Valentine.
Here’s the Golden Legend‘s article on St. Valentine, which goes with the Emperor Claudius II bit. This was also elaborated to include the saint writing a nice thank you note “From your Valentine” to his jailer’s kind daughter, when the English invented Valentines.
A page explaining the legend of Sabinus and Serapia. Also includes a legend of Valentine roses.
A 2007 essay about the story, by today’s bishop of Terni.
A modern stained glass window from Terni’s Basilica di San Valentino. Relics of St. Valentine in Terni.
Sabino e Serapia as an Italian play, on YouTube.
St. Valentine’s skull versus a plague of mice at Jumieges.