Who Saint Valentine was is not at all certain. He may be a conglomeration of more than one saint, and although no churches in England are dedicated to him, his popularity is now virtually un-rivalled across the world.
Chaucer wrote in his, ‘Parlement of Foules‘ that the birds seek their mates on Valentine’s Day, which is not so erroneous if the weather is warmer than it usually is lately.
or this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
As ever, it was the Victorians who were responsible for popularising and, as ever, profiting from the saint with their use of Valentine cards.
Roses were sacred to many goddesses in ancient times, including Venus and Aphrodite. The Romans were very fond of roses and the wealthy would shower them from the ceilings at banquets; some reports say people suffocated under the petals. When they could no longer supply enough roses from Rome the petals were imported from Egypt.
The church was very aware of the rose’s association with profane love and initially the rose was frowned upon; but you can’t suppress flowers in the same way as you might books and creeds. The church, with its usual method of adopting pagan customs and then Christianising them, relented, and the rose came to take on Christian symbolism.
According to one medieval myth, roses were originally white. The story tells how the Crown of Thorns was in fact a rose briar with white flowers. As Christ bled, the petals were stained red with his blood. Red roses thus represent Christ and martyrdom. The white rose represents the purity of the Virgin Mary.
The rose bud may also represent Christ, or in the secular world, the object of the lovers affection and devotion; the lover of course, always being a man.
The monk may seek and praise Christ as the rosebud in the heavenly realms , whilst the courtly lover would search for her in a physical form, here on earth.
The most popular book during the medieval period was the ‘Romaunce of the Rose.’ The book was begun by Guillaume de Lorris c. 1230, and it is generally accepted that he failed to finish it. Jean de Meun completed the book c. 1275. Although written in French, educated knights would have had no problem reading the book. Later, when the 100 years’ war with France made it more politically correct to speak English, Chaucer made his own translation.
The story is set within a garden and tells of the trials and tribulations of the lover to achieve his heart’s desire – the rose bud.
Nowadays we are unlikely to chase our desire in a garden, as many people are glued to their various electronic devices. Ordering your roses online is very easy – and paying is even easier.
The sale of roses for mid-February is huge, with the price often trebling its usual level. No self-respecting lover will accept anything other than red roses.
The more cost-aware lover may well buy his roses considerably cheaper after February 14th, but I suspect the object of his affection would be most unlikely to appreciate his financial acumen.
The modern Valentine Day rose is usually in bud; for the manufacturer’s advantage not ours, as they are less likely to be damaged.
The recipient, meanwhile, can try as she may, but the rose buds rarely open, and even more rarely bear any scent.
How may well Shakespeare lament,
‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’
when sadly, these roses do not smell at all.
Maybe today it is enough that you send a text and tag a heart to it. Not very romantic, but that is the modern world.
‘Amor vincit omnia,’
‘Love conquers all,’
as the bracelet of Chaucer’s prioress proclaimed.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
To see a fine collection of old Valentine’s cards, visit the Oxfordshire Mueum at Woodstock:
Where I shall giving my talk
‘A Garden Enclosed – Sacred and Secular Love in The Medieval Garden’
on March 5th 2016 at 2.30 pm.
See the museum web site for more details.