St Valentine’s Day

9781108001298fc3dThe estimable John Brand informs us that ‘It is a ceremony, says Bourne, never omitted among the vulgar, to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine Day. The names of a select number of one sex are, by an equal number of the other, put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a names, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.’

The Bourne in question is Henry Bourne (1694–1733), curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose Antiquitates vulgares forms the core of John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, later revised by Henry Ellis: this version was reissued in the Cambridge Library Collection. (Similarly, Joseph Ames (1687–1759) originally wrote Typographical Antiquities, which was considerably augmented by William Herbert (1718–95), and then ‘greatly enlarged, with copious notes, and illustrated with appropriate engravings’ by our old friend Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776–1847).)

St Valentine’s Day gives Bourne/Brand/Ellis much matter to consider. The ‘rural tradition, that on this day every bird chuses its mate’, with its mentions by Chaucer and Shakespeare, is duly noted. The Pastons mention choosing Valentines, and various poetical effusions suggest that you could try divination by casting a name into the fire (which sounds like Hallowe’en activity), though as Brand points out: ‘I have searched the legend of St Valentine, but think there is no occurrence in his life that could have given rise to this ceremony.’ (He adds to this a wonderfully dismissive footnote, about love, charity, and gallantry which I don’t have room to quote.)

On the subject of divination, you could try fastening a bay leaf to each corner of your pillow, and one in the middle; then boil an egg, take out the yolk, fill the space with salt, eat (including the shell) and await developments. In Kent, girls used to capture from the boys and set fire to an effigy called the Holly-Boy; and vice versa with an Ivy-Girl: it’s not quite clear why, but sounds fun.

Again according to Brand, St Valentine was a presbyter martyred under the Emperor Claudius (i.e. early in the first century CE), unless of course the Claudius in question was Claudius Gothicus of the third century; and there seem in fact to be three different Valentines, all martyrs … Moreover, there is apparently a skull of St Valentine in the church of Sta Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, but only since it was removed from a catacomb in 1836: it’s not clear (again) how they decided that this (as opposed to any other skull) was Valentine (or which one).

The alleged skull of St Valentine

The alleged skull of St Valentine

But if you want to avoid the flowers-and-chocs routine (and by the way, gents, a single red rose is regarded as an insult these days), may we recommend a few appropriate titles (though arousal of passion is not necessarily guaranteed!):

Anonymous: The Love-Life of Dr Kane: Containing the Correspondence, and a History of the Acquaintance, Engagement, and Secret Marriage between Elisha K. Kane and Margaret Fox









Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (2 Volume Set)

Grosart, ed. Robert Chester’s ‘Love’s Martyr; Or, Rosalins Complaint’: With Its Supplement, ‘Diverse Poeticall Essaies on the Turtle and Phoenix’








Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

Shakespeare, Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers









Simcox, Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women, and Lovers

or the never-to-be-forgotten Sweet Silvery Sayings of Shakespeare on the Softer Sex, containing dozens of appropriately romantic quotations?



This entry was posted in Archaeology, English Men of Letters, Fiction and poetry, Literary Studies, Religious Studies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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