There were multiple St. Valentines (including decapitated ones), but it was a medieval poet who first established the holiday's romantic tradition.
On February 14, when we share chocolates, special dinners, or doily cards with our loved ones, we do it in the name of Saint Valentine. But who was this saint of romance?
Search the internet, and you can find plenty of stories about him—or them. One Saint Valentine was supposedly a Roman priest who performed secret weddings against the wishes of the authorities in the third century. Imprisoned in the home of a noble, he healed his captor’s blind daughter, causing the whole household to convert to Christianity and sealing his fate. Before being tortured and decapitated on February 14, he sent the girl a note signed “Your Valentine.”
Some accounts say another saint named Valentine during the same period was the Bishop of Terni, also credited with secret weddings and martyrdom via beheading on February 14.
Unfortunately for anyone hoping for a tidy, romantic backstory to the holiday, scholars who have studied its origins say there’s very little basis for these accounts. In fact, Valentine’s Day only became associated with love in the late Middle Ages, thanks to the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
“The two stories that everybody talks about, the bishop and the priest, they’re so similar that it makes me suspicious,” says Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Iowa.
Valentine was a popular name in ancient Rome, and there are at least 50 stories of different saints by that name. But Forbes said the earliest surviving accounts of the two February 14 Valentines, written starting in the 500s, have a whole lot in common. Both were said to have healed a child while imprisoned, leading to a household-wide religious conversion, and they were executed on the same day of the year and buried along the same highway.
The historical evidence is so sketchy that it’s not clear whether the story started with one saint who then became two or if biographers of one man borrowed details from the other—or if either ever existed at all.
Perhaps more disappointing for the romantics among us, the early accounts of the two Valentines are typical martyrdom stories, stressing the saints’ miracles and gruesome deaths but containing not a word about romance.
“They’re both mythical to begin with, and the connection with love is even more mythical,” says Henry Kelly, a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature and history at UCLA.