Saint Valentine and the Roman She-Wolf

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Relics of St Valentine in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

 

In many parts of the world, religious violence always seems to be just around the corner, and amidst the hearts and flowers of St Valentine’s Day it is worth remembering that the festival seems to have its origins in the religous conflict of early medieval Rome. Valentine himself is remembered as a presbyter living in the city of Rome who, according to tradition, was martyred for performing miracles during the reign of the emperor Valerian in AD 257.

But the origins of his cult seem to have come later, in the fifth century. Traditionally, his feast day falls on the ides of February, which had traditionally been the date of the Lupercalia, the pagan festival which celebrated the Lupa, the she-wolf who had nurtured Rome’s founders, the orphans Romulus and Remus.

Valentine & Lucilla - Jacopo Bassano - Version 2

Valentine heals the blind woman Lucilla, by Jacopo Bassano (1575)

In antiquity, the Lupercalia was a bawdy festival, at which the sons of senatorial families would dress in goat-skins and run round the city’s ancient walls, lashing the female spectators lined along their route with special whips made from the goat-skins. These lashings were meant to confer fertility on the girls and women. But in a letter to the Roman Senator Andronicus, the early medieval Pope Gelasius (492-96) called for the Lupercaila to be banned, arguing that it was a vestige of paganism that did not good to the morals of Rome’s youth.

Scholars believe that it was around that time that the legend of Valentine was written, and it seems likely that in Rome at least, his cult was understood as a replacement for the older Roman festival.

It was not until the late middle ages that Valentine himself became associated with earthly love – evidently Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls  is the first source which remembers him in this light. But it seems fitting that the ides of February are again a day to celebrate love.

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  1. […] kateantiquity today, the story of the Roman origins of Valentine’s Day. Check it […]

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