Friday, 14 February 2014


Today is St. Valentine’s Day, as you know. This is celebrated in Japan by teenage girls giving chocolates to their friends because they like that sort of shit, and adult women giving chocolates to their colleagues and co-workers because something something obligation something sexist antediluvian throwback stagnant society something bumblefuck something, as you also know.

What you may not be aware of, however, is exactly why, of all the blazing pantheon of high-church Saints, it was Valentine who got the nod for this particular festival. It’s worth noting that, as with so many saints, Valentine is working a double shift and has more on his plate than merely February 14th. He is also patron of: tanners, coopers, mountebanks, lost livestock, farriers, sufferers of Lyme’s Disease, ice-cream vans, winklepickers (the shoes), clipart (the ‘art’), and shingles (not suffers of shingles, he’s patron of the actual disease itself).

That’s a fairly varied portfolio for someone of such humble origins. Originally born the son of a whore-shamer somewhere in Anatolia during the second century B.C., St. Valentine was eventually martyred on the day that bears his name by being pushed from a bridge, tied in a sack with a bunch of rocks and a pig. His journey from the family of an impoverished but respectable low-ranking government official (whore-shaming at the time being paid on commission) to Catholic martyr is one of the more unusual in the liturgy.

Little is known for certain about his early life. There is some evidence that a boy named ‘Valentini’ was sold as payment on a debt his father incurred gambling with a Macedonian merchant on the outcome of a ritual ass basting, but it was a fairly common name at the time and basting debt was far from rare. Either way, a decade later a ‘Vilentias’ is recorded in a Greek manuscript as Page of the Shit to the Proctor of Thebes. This was a filthy but relatively prestigious position held by young men of common birth, allowing personal access to figures of importance in Theban Society and necessitating a certain degree of trust on the parts of both Page and Proctor. Court records dated not long after show the Proctor personally intervening in the trial of a defendant described only as ‘V’, to ensure they were absolved of the relatively serious charge of Whittle Abasement.

The scholarly consensus is that ‘V’ was indeed Valentine, and if so it would appear that the Proctor’s protection only stretched so far: three years after the trial Tyrian documents record a merchant importing a shipload of cargo containing ‘slaves, exiles, and wincing-boys’, among whom one of the few named was a ‘Voltinine ~ Exile’. This Voltinine was sold into servitude (again?) in the house of one Marcus Marcus, a Roman merchant making his fortune in rare animal imports, and it seems much of Voltinine’s time was spent learning and then practicing the trade of Budgerigar Wrangler. Crucially, Marcus Marcus was an affiliate of a secret sect known as The Virgin Children of The Rock on High, and Voltinine probably converted to Christianity during this time, undergoing the now obsolete ritual of ‘Tough Hanging’ (it is worth noting that despite the crippling effect it had on the ears of participants, this barbarous practice was only outlawed by the Catholic church during the otherwise infamous ‘Longcock Council’ of Nantes in 1472).

Valentine’s life after conversion is relatively well documented, and a quick internet search will be enough to inform interested parties of the more pertinent episodes: his escape from servitude during the Persian Incursion of 204; his participation in the Convocation of Nipples (from which the city of Naples takes its name) and the Raising of the Member which is canonically acknowledged as the first of his miracles; his affair with, and abuse and subsequent forgiveness of the Bishopric of Toulon (during which he lost his other ear); and, most famously of all, the Scouring of the Chamber, which the residents of Cantabria celebrate to this day with a festival of stylized mystery plays, mock street-battles, and goat-punching.

Ultimately however, Valentine is most remembered for the act which led to his martyrdom and the attachment of his name to the festival of romance. His moistly explosive intervention in the marriage of the Convener of Rome secured both his death and his immortality: the displeased convener ordered his execution (by the traditional method) but his cause was taken up by the women of the city supported, albeit covertly, by the Convener’s wife herself. Within a decade of his death small shrines to Valentine were being erected by the womenfolk on the anniversary of his death, only to be denounced by the city’s aldermen as ‘cheap’ and ‘insincere’ and ‘a waste of fucking money’.

And thus a tradition was born.


  1. According to Radio 2 there were two St Valentines.

    My wife said that Japanese women are tired of giving "giri choco" and the custom is fading. I asked where my chocs were.

    1. Can't say I blame them. Ridiculous practice. That said, my students seemed to be more into it that ever this year, which I couldn't help but find slightly depressing. Ah well, Rome wasn't built in a day...