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Saint Valentine: The Patron Saint Of Bees, Fainting, And The Actual Plague

People | February 11, 2020

Valentine ministered to persecuted Christians in the third century. Colored engraving, Italy, 1886. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).

Today, most of what we know about Saint Valentine is wrapped up in the holiday named for him that we celebrate on February 14, but there is much more to this ancient Roman Catholic bishop than roses, love notes, and heart-shaped chocolates. Not much is definitively known about Valentine, who lived in the third century, and many of the stories associated with him have probably been exaggerated over the years. One thing we do know for sure is that Saint Valentine was a real person with a soft spot for love and marriage that got him into trouble with the Romans. 

Records of the time are incomplete, so we don't know too much about Valentine, the man. (brockbuilt.com)

Two Different Saint Valentines?

The official records from the third century are either murky or nonexistent when it comes to Saint Valentine. Many scholars think that there were actually two men by the name of Valentine and that stories associated with each ended up merging together. Some of these stories have multiple versions and inconsistencies, so it's impossible to know for certain what Valentine did in his lifetime. We do know that Saint Valentine's martyred body is buried in a Christian cemetery near Ponte Milvio along the Via Flaminia and that a feast has been held in his honor since 496 AD. 

To prove his faith, Valentine restored a young girl's vision. (epilepsysociety.org.uk)

Valentine Performed A Miracle

In the third century, Christians were still a minority in Rome. Valentine ministered to these Christians who were persecuted by the Romans under Emperor Claudius, which made him unpopular and put a target on his head. One time, he was placed under house arrest in the home of a Roman judge, Judge Asterius. In their ancient way of making small talk, Valentine and Asterius engaged in a debate over religion, and the judge decided to put Valentine's faith to the test. Asterius brought forth his daughter, who was blind, and bid Valentine to restore her vision. Taking this frankly unreasonable request in stride, Valentine placed his hand over the girl's eyes and prayed, and to everyone's surprise, the girl could see again. Asterius was so moved by the experience that he, his family, and every member of his household were soon baptized as Christians. Moreover, the judge released all Christian prisoners in the area.

Was Valentine really interested in increasing the marriage rate, or was he trying to anger the emperor? (anxcollective.org)

He Had A Thing For Marriage

We like to assume that Saint Valentine was a hopeless romantic who wanted to see couples experience their happily ever after, but he got in some serious trouble with Emperor Claudius for secretly marrying Christian couples. Why the fuss? Because a married man could not be pressed into military service. By performing these marriages, Valentine was depleting Claudius's army. In a sense, he was aiding and abetting a mess of draft-dodgers, and Claudius wasn't having it.

Valentine met a brutal death. (intellectualtakeout.org)

Valentine Was Executed

In some stories, the death sentence that Claudius handed down to Valentine was the result of the emperor's anger over the numerous secret marriages. Other stories hold that Valentine attempted to convert Claudius himself to Christianity, an offense the emperor couldn't abide. Either way, we know that Claudius offered Valentine an out. He informed the bishop that his life would be sparred if he renounced his faith, but if he refused, he would be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded. Valentine preferred to be martyred for his beliefs, so he was executed on February 14, 269. Or maybe it was 270, 273, or 280. The date is certain, but the year is not. The execution of Valentine took place just outside the Flaminian Gate, where Pope Julius I later ordered a church to be constructed.

A note given to Valentine on his execution day was signed "Your Valentine." (legatus.org)

Remember The Blind Girl?

Remember the judge's blind daughter whose sight was restored by Valentine? According to legend, on the day of Valentine's execution, she left him a note signed "Your Valentine."

From the Middle Ages through Victorian times, young lovers used Valentine's name as a blessing for their relationship. (historyrevealed.com)

Remembering Valentine In The Middle Ages

Valentine was always known for marrying young couples, but it wasn't until the Middle Ages that his name became associated with love and romance. Medieval folks loved stories of courtly love, especially forbidden, secret love, so every pair of star-crossed lovers invoked Valentine to bless their romance. Eventually, the secret love notes exchanged between couples became known as "Valentines."

A pre-Roman fertility festival was replaced with celebrations of Saint Valentine. (history.com)

Valentine's Day Replaced A Pagan Fertility Holiday

As with many Christian holidays, Valentine's Day was hijacked from the pagans. It appears that Christians began to celebrate Valentine's Day in mid-February to offer a Christian alternative to the pagan festival of Lupercalia, a pre-Roman fertility festival that was held from February 13 to 15 in Rome to keep evil spirits away from the city.

Many epilepsy organizations include references to Saint Valentine even today. (guidepost.com)

Bees, The Plague, And Epilepsy, Oh My!

It's true that Saint Valentine is the patron saint of love and marriage, but he has jurisdiction over other areas as well. Valentine is also the patron saint of travelers, beekeepers, and greetings. Hey, the man apparently had a variety of interests, including a number of strange medical ones: Valentine is the patron saint of fainting, epilepsy, and the Plague. After all, what's more romantic than the Black Death?

Tags: ancient rome | christianity | history of valentine | holidays

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.