Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.
In modern tradition, we expect to celebrate with cards, chocolates, flowers and spending time with our significant other. But how did this tradition start?
According to romantic legend, St. Valentine was a kind-hearted priest who married young couples against the wishes of Emperor Claudius II. He was martyred for the preaching of his Christian faith on the 14th February 273AD by beheading. His feast day became associated with romantic love and confessions of love.
Some consider the idea of celebrating romantic love on the feast of St Valentine was borrowed from the Roman festival Lupercalia. The festival was celebrated at a similar time and celebrated spring, fertility and the she-wolf Lupa who suckled the infant orphan founders of Rome.
There are similarities with the festivals but not enough to prove that Valentine’s Day was based on the prior pagan practice – Lupercalia was actually more complicated than simply a festival celebrating love.
St Valentine is more often associated with the Medieval Courts of Love.
(Tristram and Isolde by Edmund Leighton, 19th Century)
Courtly Love is the spectacular European ideal of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry and can be vividly seen through legends such as those of King Arthur. Medieval literature is brimming with examples of brave knights setting out on adventures and performing various services for beautiful ladies because of their “courtly love”.
The idea supposedly originated with the troubadours of the early 11th century in France.
Marriage during this period was more associated with political advancement and dynasty, meaning playing at romance within the strict confines of courtly love was a safe way to gain the romance missing in many marriages.
(Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901)
Andreas Capellanus wrote a 12th century treatise De Amore listing ‘rules’ of courtly love. There is some debate over whether these are serious or tongue-in-cheek but a few are listed below if you would like to apply them to your own romantic lives:
- “Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women”
- “When made public love rarely endures”
- “He who is not jealous, cannot love.”
- “Boys do not love until they reach the age of maturity.”
- “He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.”
- “The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.”
Lovesickness was considered a genuine illness by Medieval authors. Constantine the African and Gerard of Berry both wrote about the link between the black bile of melancholy (one of the body’s humours) and lovesickness. It was though to increase when the sufferer became fixated on another person.
So now you know why love can be so painful.
This over the top literary tradition of Courtly Love is considered entirely fabricated now.
Yet in truth it is only as silly as our association of romantic love with the trappings of modern day chocolate and gift shops.
Personally, I think troubadours are sorely missed.