Valentine’s Day has never been anything special to me. Admittedly I am not fond of it, being single, because everything is shoved in your face as “couples” this, that and the next. So being single around this time of year is awful anyway. But even when I have had a boyfriend, I’ve never been much interested in this particular holiday. It just isn’t interesting to me, and I’m generally not fond of jumping into the commercial “Hallmark” of the whole holiday. I’m not going to shit on the day for anyone who likes it though. A lot of my friends and family love Valentine’s Day for getting to have an excuse to celebrate with their SO. And that’s sweet, and I think that kind of thing is adorable.
This means that me, myself, I’m fairly quiet about it. After all, no reason to spoil the holiday for people who like it, just because my own nature makes me rather less sappy and romantic than the average female out there. I really prefer not acknowledging this holiday at all, so when I’m dating, I actually ask that nothing be done. Or if the person I’m dating really feels the need to get me something–a book. Nothing Valentine’s, not chocolate, not flowers. But that’s just myself and how I handle it.
Other people are just generally less polite about these things though, much to the annoyance of my whole team at work on Tuesday. I’ve mentioned in passing before that I work for an international company, and the people in my office come from all over the world. My team alone comes from several Asian countries, a pair of European nations, one from an African nation, a few from South America, and a pair from the USA (I’ll be a bit vague on specific locations to protect their privacy). We have a vast mix of cultural backgrounds within the office itself. Which of course means that in our office we celebrate a vast host of holidays in office. We’ll celebrate Chinese New Year, different cultural holidays from every nation our coworkers come from – Carnival, Bastille Day, Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, and the list goes on. Also important to note about my company: there are many religious backgrounds.
Tuesday morning one of my coworkers, who is extremely rigidly Catholic, had complained to our supervisor that people are “insulting the Catholics” by “commercializing” Valentine’s Day and not honoring the martyred saint behind the day. Of course, given our company’s open cultural policy of respect and due to our supervisor wanting to ensure that everyone’s beliefs are being properly recognized, our supervisor agreed to let this coworker give a “short history” on why it’s even a noted day. So we got treated to a sanctimonious, near-tears rant about how St. Valentine was a wonderful martyr and the pagan Roman Empire killed him just because he was marrying people in God’s name; not to mention her near proselytizing in tone about how people need to honor the history of such a great Saint of the Church. Oh, and of course the mention of how every good Catholic™ needs to be worshipful of just what Valentine did for the growth of the Church.
Now, I am not going to say I’m an expert on Catholicism or Christian doctrine and beliefs. I’m not. But I did study Christian theology in university, and I do have the benefit of having grown up with 99.9% of my friends all being Christian of various denominations. This obviously includes Catholic. And even my most devout and staunch Catholic friends don’t do anything about St. Valentine. For them, Valentine’s Day is the exact same as it is for all our secular, agnostic, atheist and spiritual friends. It’s a damned Hallmark holiday that is celebrated to give a reason to celebrate relationships, to buy cards, chocolate and flowers, and just generally power the capitalistic markets on these industries. They celebrate their relationships, or friends’ relationships on this day, but not in any special way. It’s just the same for them as it is for our atheist friends who just love having an excuse to get gifts, go out to a nice dinner, and get chocolate.
So her sanctimonious blathering about how it is such an important day set me off wrong. My Catholic friends don’t at all act like St. Valentine is on the same level as the Virgin Mary in the importance of saints. Because he’s not. Yes, he did do marriages, but so what? As one of my closest friends from uni pointed out in one of our Christian Traditions religion classes–so what? Damn near every female saint has part of her hagiography about how she refused marriage to an ungodly pagan, or she married a godly man and had excellent godly children; and upon her husband’s death, she piously gave up her life and joined a convent to lock herself away from the world. (yes, this is a bit harsh, but it is a clear pattern) Marriage, refusal of or pious submission to, is a pretty recurrent theme among Catholic saints. There’s not a whole lot special on the subject…actually no, it’s a theme really, of marriage in Catholic saint story.
Not to mention, as a history student, and someone who has done extensive studying on that time period, I was actually a bit annoyed at her for other reasons. The way she told it, Valentine was killed for “stopping these Italian men’s libido (we all know what Italian men are like, right? wink wink, nudge nudge) by marrying them to their beloved”. This is highly insulting on multiple levels.
- For one – seriously? Acting like Italian men are uncontrollable sex-monsters who couldn’t keep it in their pants? Or worse, these men were going to be going off and having “bastard children” (which she said with the most ridiculous disdain possible, I add) if they weren’t married. Because self control isn’t a thing. The sheer rudeness of how she phrased it was the height of horrifyingly insulting to me. She actually said that Italians are incapable of having the self-control to not just go out and sleep with everyone in sight.
- For two – being married has never stopped anyone, male or female, from sleeping with someone else if they really wanted to. Hell, half of history is made up of affairs and just what they cause in reactions. It’s actually amusing in history to learn all these things. But really; Valentine marrying these citizens of the Roman Empire was not going to stop these men from sleeping with local women where they were deployed. Or raping them. Because let’s be honest, that was also a thing that armies did (still do sometimes–human culture is not as advanced from 2000 years ago as we like to claim).
Those two things together were enough to make my blood boil when she was talking. Hell, it’s the mere thought that someone would say such things. I couldn’t even fathom it. The implicit rudeness and bigotry behind saying it; it shocked me. And what’s stranger, no one else seemed to catch it. Now, I rather expected that some of my coworkers, having only been in English-speaking, “western” countries for the last 5-ish years, they might not get it. But there are Americans on my team with me, and they should have caught how rude this was. But nope, no reaction from anyone else.
But as the historian in me cringed, here’s what made me angry. She was repeating historical BS that even the Catholic Church (her own church) has admittedly led to removing Valentine from their official calendar. Because the Church can even admit when they know jack shit about a saint, because there are no contemporary records.
I’m going to have to go off of my memory here (because I don’t have the source book I got this from during my college course anymore). But here’s a short version of how St. Valentine came about–to our modern understanding.
About 500 CE a pope names his feast day as February 14th–but also admits in doing so that his acts were “known only to God” – or something to that effect. The pope who made his feast day admitted that they had no clue what he had done to become a saint. His name and sainthood come about from “prior records”, with absolutely no knowledge of the man’s life, what he had done, how he died, or any information on his acts. Paired with this uncertainty back c. 500 CE, there is also the fact that the Church has no clue which of 2 or 3 men this St. Valentine was. So they don’t even know which one it is, or if perhaps the original records conflated 2 or 3 men together to create the one saint. Now it is possible, and could be considered highly likely due to problems of 2000 year old records, that 2 of these men were the same Valentine who is the saint associated with February 14. But no one can say for sure anymore.
The hagiography I remember learning about in my history class was of a Valentine who was arrested and brought before Claudius, the Emperor himself. He proselytized and Claudius was not pleased with this, so he ordered the execution of Valentine. Valentine was given a chance to recant his beliefs. He refused, and so on the emperor’s orders he was beaten to death with clubs and then beheaded. This was sometime in the 3rd century CE.
The whole legend about marrying Christian couples, well it’s just that: a legend. It is not in the hagiography or in the information from the Church. That his marrying these couples stopped husbands from going to war. There is no contemporary proof of any of this. Not to mention – if the Roman Empire really wanted their soldiers, they were going to put orders out and enforce them. There is no stopping an empire on these fronts if they want to do something–so the mere idea that simple marriage is going to stop gathering troops, it is laughable in its absurdity. This is the type of story, sentimentality that is created later to try and glorify someone. Historians have come to the agreement that there is no verifying the records about St. Valentine coming from the 5th and 6th centuries CE. They have no prior records from the time these events were happening, and have sketchy, at best, writing about the subject.
(I finally figured out which Claudius everyone thinks it is! People used to think it was Claudius I–who has no record of persecution of Christians as such. But then people think the stories were attached to Claudius Gothicus. Which is strange and near impossible considering this Claudius spent the majority of his reign fighting outside forces. But again, most records of this period are either gone, or mention no such thing as Valentine and his actions in either Claudius’ reign)
Valentine being tied to love is only from the middle ages. One of the later kind of mentions is in the Nuremberg Chronicle from the 15th century CE. But that came from earlier mentions in the 13th century CE. Now, that’s an important period for one particular reason: courtly love.
Courtly love sounds sweet. And people in studying the time period have romanticized it quite a bit. Ah, courtly love of the knight for his lady (noble, sweet, virtuous, virginal, waiting upon his attentions); or in some cases for the knight for his married lady, who he serves with total devotion. Major warning! It is always about noble women, nobility, and those men who served them or loved them. Not a single “normal” woman of the peasant class among all this courtly love talk, the troubadours, the Minnesänger. No. The whole culture is structured around nobility, the high-born woman who is due devotion and “courtly love”.
But here’s the dark side of that. The culture behind it was not so pleasant. I mean, Europe’s standing armies of the middle ages were horrific. They were barbarians–rapists, murderers, men who committed assault, theft and property damage. There are some historical arguments that part of the reason for the Crusades was to get these standing armies away from Europe, to keep them from destroying their own employer’s lands, people and economies. And there’s some truth to that. Look at the Siege of Ma’arra. The Crusaders at the very least massacred the citizenry after the city surrendered under promise from their leaders of safe passage; at the worst they cannibalized people there. While there is some uncertainty as to the claim of cannibalism, there is valid truth even from the Crusader chronicles, that they massacred civilians who had been promised freedom in Ma’arra. These knights were horrific barbarians who acted on the worst and basest of impulses. These are the same knights that we all today romanticize as the bastion of “courtly love”.
So the middle ages association of Valentine with love is a bit troublesome, for me. Because I know the history of the idea, and why things conflate the way they do. And a lot of “love” that people idolize and point to from the middle ages is tainted by class, by protection to those of high blood, while those of low blood were left to be brutalized as they were by those who were the arbiters of courtly love.
I am admittedly a total pessimist here. But given the time period where records begin to associate Valentine with “lovers”, there’s nothing there to celebrate. Not to mention, the Church themselves admit that from their earliest records (closest to the 3rd century CE when Valentine supposedly lived) nowhere mention him for this. So of course, it’s all rather arbitrary and late to attach him as a patron saint of love. Legends notwithstanding, there’s no proof of that being why he was originally honored back in the 5th and 6th century CE.
Which is all why I was a bit annoyed with my coworker. She was spouting fallacious statements that have absolutely not basis in truth. Her own Church doesn’t even really recognize the man as a saint. They leave it to local branches to decide what to do about St. Valentine, post Vatican II and the removal of Valentine from the calendar. So her own church doesn’t really put much stock in him and his “holiday”. And on top of this, she was being sanctimonious about how we all need to honor this man; a saint for a religion that maybe no one else on the team even follows. The sheer unmitigated gall to tell us all we need to honor a Catholic saint, when I know not 100% of our coworkers even follow that religion (maybe there are a few other Catholics on my team…but I know not 100% are, because there is me for one; and at least 1 Eastern Orthodox Christian).
I truly hate sanctimonious speeches anyway. But then throw in the steaming pile of historical “nope” that she spewed, and I was not happy. Celebrate your religion as you want. Celebrate your saints. But there was no need to create such a ridiculous speech as she did at work to coworkers who are not all Christian. And if everyone else just likes Valentine’s Day for the chocolate, flowers, and an excuse to go out on a fancy dinner with their SO, respect that and don’t be a brat about trying to proselytize your faith under the guise of “educating [us] about the truth of Saint Valentine’s Day”.∗