Valentine’s Day may be beloved by romance-flushed individuals keen to express their passion, and by retailers for the massive windfalls of cash it generates ($18.2 billion in the US this year) in cards, toy bears, and items adorned with hearts, but for others—the single among us, for example—it’s a painful reminder of the primacy society gives to couples, and an exercise in hollow consumption.
If you’re in the latter group, it might be worth noting that whatever you are going through this Valentine’s Day, it’s probably not as bad as what Saint Valentine went through on the day the holiday commemorates.
Valentine, a Christian priest in the Roman empire, was beaten, stoned, and finally, decapitated on Feb. 14 roughly 1,700 years ago in Rome, according to hazy accounts that have been passed down through history.
Some versions of the legend say Valentine’s crime was performing marriages for young Christian men and women in an age that favored open relationships. Young marriage was also frowned on because it was seen as making fighting men less tough. Valentine may also have attempted to convert people, and even the then-emperor Claudius II, to Christianity. One version of his story says that Valentine healed his jailor’s daughter of blindness when he was in prison awaiting execution (in other versions, it’s the daughter of a judge.) Before being taken out to die, he wrote the girl a note signed “your Valentine.”
Romantic? Not so much.
The history around the man himself is incomplete, comprising more than one person—St. Valentine of Terni and St. Valentine of Rome—who may or may not have been the same. Even the date of his death is unclear—various versions say it took place in 269, 270, 273, or 280 AD.
Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of St. Valentine’s martyrdom in 496 AD. By this point, Christianity had moved from subversive fringe group to the main religion of the Roman empire. Some historians believe that Valentine’s Day was instated in order to suppress the pagan ritual of Lupercalia, a fertility rite in which single young men and women were paired off in a type of sexual lottery.
Not all saints came to such a violent end, but violence and martyrdom—one route to sainthood—do rather go hand-in-hand, as a full list of martyred saints shows.
According to Catholic Online, St. Valentine is patron saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, love, lovers, and young people, but also of plague, travelers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings—and bee keepers.