Solving the riddle of romance

Published 11:19 am Thursday, February 13, 2014

In one respect, the mystery that is choosing the perfect Valentine’s Day gift is related to the cherry-red holiday’s namesake.

History is hazy on the subject of who St. Valentine was. They’re not even sure if it was one guy, two or three. The best the scribes can do is a third-century bishop thought to have died Feb. 14 on the Via Flaminia, an ancient trade road north of Rome.  For the Anglican and Lutheran churches, it’s a feast day. For centuries of Catholics, Feb. 14 was a day of commemoration for the third-century martyr mentioned alongside St. George by Pope Gelasius I in the fourth century as being saints “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”

Perhaps the most accepted story of St. Valentine’s sainthood has him as the former bishop of Terni, in modern-day central Italy. A judge in the territory tested the bishop’s faith by bringing his blind daughter to him and asked her sight be restored. Valentinus, as he was called by the Romans, laid his hands on the girl’s eyes and her sight returned — resulting in the judge exonerating all Christian inmates he had sentenced. The judge converted, and so did his family and 40 others. Later, the bishop saw that The Roman emperor Claudius II was a little tougher sell; he had Valentinus executed for not renouncing his faith. Claudius needed a Valentine card of a different sort, I think.

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In 1969, the church took Valentine’s Day off the General Roman Calendar because the bio on the man was so soft. It’s still a “commemoration”, relegated in status below better-known saints.

The holiday is connected to romantic love thanks to a few misinterpretations of Middle Ages literature and pop culture.

Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules” (or, in modern English, “assembly of birds”) contains the line, translated into modern English, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh to choose his mate.” It was written for King Richard II’s and Anne of Bohemia’s second engagement, however birds in England probably weren’t mating that early in the year. Maybe Chaucer was grasping at straws; who knows?

Later, we had the High Court of Love — or did we? The “courtly love” ritual in which the knights in shining armor — white satin was still too expensive, I guess — and the Rapunzels would exchange flowery poems to one another before tribunals of up to 70 women who’d hear the “case” and rule on it on the rules of love. (Quick, somebody Google that rule book, ASAP!) Closer examination over time by literary scholars cast doubt on whether these courts ever existed outside fluffy literature. I, for one, would pay the ticket price for the whole love court thing. Imagine the TV ratings!

Today, we pretty much have a commercial holiday built around the idea of loving your mate in ways imaginable only through Hallmark or American Greetings cards. That industry estimates about 200 million valentines are sent each year, including the electronic kind via email. That doesn’t include the long-stem red roses, cherry-sip chocolates, gift baskets of personal hygiene products and other things that can be bought or sold.

Interesting how we use the commercial angle to represent the emotion of love. Here’s a less aged reference. Go find a made-for-cable flick from the 1980s called “Finnegan Begin Again.” It starred stage actor Robert Preston as an aging newspaperman in a May-December romance with an art teacher played by Mary Tyler Moore. The money line of the film, as uttered by Preston’s character — “Romance is cotton candy. Real love is what you do for each other.”

The best gift to a spouse, a mate, a parent, a friend, any other loved one? The gift of self.

Danny Barrett Jr. is the assistant managing editor. He can be reached by email at