My Bloody Valentine

by on February 11, 2013 · 3 comments

in Culture, Economy, Under the Perfect Sun

lupercalia-roseIt’s the Monday before Valentine’s Day and merchants across America are happily preparing for our annual romance-driven consumer frenzy. Indeed this schmaltzy commodification of love is worth around $14.7 billion dollars a year with much of it ending in the predictable disappointment that comes when we realize that our frantic, frequently anxious lives just don’t measure up to the prepackaged saccharine dreams we are sold.

Valentine’s Day is the sanctification of an empty, soul-killing romance narrative, a celebration of the notion that the most precious and intangible human emotion can be summoned by the magic of the sexless dollar. In sum, as currently constituted, Valentine’s Day is where real love goes to die.

The roots of what we think of when we think about buying something to signify love are as American as apple pie, and we might trace the origins of the total commercialization of romance to 1913 when Hallmark began to mass market Valentine’s Day cards as we know them. This commercial landmark was preceded by the work of Esther Howland who, in 1850, first started to produce and sell Valentines, starting the move away from exchanging personally crafted cards or even poems to trading commodities made by someone else.

In the centuries before this, the tradition in the West always involved the giving of personalized tokens of affection, much of it rooted in poetry. One early English conception of Valentine’s Day observed by William Shakespeare involved the notion that if a young unmarried couple were to meet on this day they would be married. In Hamlet, written in 1600, Ophelia emotes: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,?/All in the morning betime,/?And I a maid at your window, /To be your Valentine.”

Then there was Charles, Duke of Orleans who penned the following to his wife Bonne d’Armagnac while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415:

I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine,

Since for me you were born too soon,

And I for you was born too late.

God forgives him who has estranged

Me from you for the whole year.

I am already sick of love

My very gentle Valentine

Well might I have suspected

That such a destiny,

Thus would have happened this day,

How much that Love would have commanded.

I am already sick of love

My very gentle Valentine

geoffrey-chaucer-courtly-love-200x283And, much to their mutual dismay, Charles and Bonne were never to be reunited, as she died before Charles’ return to France after his release from imprisonment. Thus the story of one of the first Valentines is a tragic tale of unfulfilled longing.

Before Charles of Orleans, many scholars claim that Geoffrey Chaucer penned the first Valentine’s Day verse, “The Parliament of Fowls,” a poem centered on the mating season of birds, which, in the Middle Ages, was thought to be around the time of Valentine’s Day. Here we jump into the tail end of Chaucer’s dream vision after he has marched us through the classical world of love to deliver us into the universe of winged creatures:

What can I say? Fowl of every kind

That in this world have feathers and stature,

Men might in that place assembled find

Before the noble goddess Nature,

And each of them took care, every creature,

With a good will, its own choice to make,

And, in accord, its bride or mate to take.

But to the point: Nature had on her hand

A female eagle, of shape the very noblest

That ever she among her works had found,

The most gracious and the very kindest;

In her was every virtue there expressed

So perfectly Nature herself felt bliss

In gazing at her and her beak would kiss.

Nature, deputy of the almighty Lord,

Who hot, cold, heavy, light, moist and dry

Has knit in balanced measure in accord,

In gentle voice began to speak and sigh,

‘Fowl, heed my judgement now, pray I,

And for your ease, in furthering of your need,

As fast as I can speak, I will you speed.

You know that on Saint Valentine’s day,

By my statute and through my governance,

You come to choose – and then fly your way –

Your mates, as I your desires enhance . . .

And when this task was all brought to an end,

Each fowl from Nature his mate did take

In full accord, and on their way they went.

And, Lord, the blissful scene they did make!

For each of them the other in wings did take,

And their necks round each other’s did wind,

Thanking the noble goddess, kind by kind.

But first were fowl chosen for to sing,

As was ever their custom year on year

To sing out a roundel at their parting

To do Nature honour and bring cheer.

The tune was made in France, as you may hear;

The words were such as here you’ll find

In the next verse, I have now in mind.

‘Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,

That this winter’s weather does off-shake,

And the long nights’ black away does take!

Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –

Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –

Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,

That this winter’s weather does off-shake.

Well have they cause to rejoice full oft,

Since each a marriage with its mate does make;

Full joyous may they sing when they wake;

Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,

That this wintry weather does off-shake,

And the long nights’ black away does take.’

And with the cries, when their song was done,

That the fowls made as they flew away,

I woke, and other books to read upon

I then took up, and still I read always;

I hope in truth to read something someday

Such that I dream what brings me better fare,

And thus my time from reading I’ll not spare.

dead cupidInterestingly, at the end of the poem, Chaucer wakes from his “dream vision” and goes off not to court a lover but back to his books. Perhaps this is because, as the reference to the “noble eagle” in this section and the full version of the poem more thoroughly shows, the birds are initially paired off by social status, an observation by Chaucer that might be seen as a wry comment on the necessity of marrying inside one’s class. So even in the golden era of the past, the romance narrative was for the birds.

But where did the notion of Valentine’s Day come from in the first place? We have martyred saints to thank for it. One of the most compelling of these early Valentines was a priest who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius II, aptly named “Claudius the Cruel,” who sought to build his army of single men by banning marriages because he felt men were failing to join the military due to their attachment to their wives and families. St. Valentine, the story goes, undercut this decree by performing underground marriages for young lovers, stealing possible recruits from the emperor’s army.

Once his betrayal of the martial plan was discovered in 278, Valentine was sentenced to being beaten to death with clubs and then beheaded. While waiting for his brutal execution he is said to have befriended the jailor’s daughter to whom he left a farewell note inscribed, “From your Valentine.” Along with this St. Valentine there are a number of other martyred St. Valentines who were also tortured and beheaded. So it goes.

The birth of St. Valentine’s Day, however, would have to wait until Christianity became the state religion and, in 496, Pope Gelasius invoked the legend of St. Valentine in an effort to repress the popular pagan holiday Lupercalia by replacing it with Valentine’s Day. Rather than a pious celebration of sanctified love, Lupercalia was all about untrammeled Eros. It originated as a festival of purification and fertility commemorating the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus at the cave of Lupercal at the foot of Palatine hill.

During this festival, young men would sacrifice goats and dogs and use their hides as bloody whips as they ran round the walls of Palatine “naked, oiled, and drunk,” as Cicero put it, gently whipping young maidens who lined up to meet them in anticipation of the ritual flogging. The whipping with bloody thongs was thought to precipitate a year of enhanced fertility. At the end of the festivities, the youths would each randomly draw the name of a young woman from a jar and the two would pair off and see if they were suitably matched for marriage.

This all took place between February 13th and 15th and remained wildly popular even after the era of Christianity had begun. Consequently, Valentine’s Day was an effort to put a Christian stamp on and neuter what was a pagan festival of sexual passion and communal regeneration.

Today’s Hallmark holiday isn’t even a faint shadow of the ancients’ bloody, orgiastic Lupercalia.

But perhaps, dear reader, you might think about buying nothing this Thursday and revisiting the raw, uncommodified passion of the distant past instead. Or, if you’d like to spare your dog and the neighbor’s goat, at least make your own card and take a shot at a poem. Remember, if your loved one requires a fancy purchase to be wooed, it’s not love—it’s something else entirely.

Happy Lupercalia!


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack February 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm

I enjoyed this alternate universe take on Valentines Day….


Frank Gormlie February 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Hey Jim, let’s bring back the Lupercalia Days – yeh! Sexual passions and communal regeneration. You summed it up nicely: “Valentine’s Day was an effort to put a Christian stamp on and neuter what was a pagan festival of sexual passion and communal regeneration.”


noldrussell February 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Here is an animated video version on history of valentine:
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.


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