Last week couples around the world celebrated Valentine's Day by showing their affection for one another, and drug stores celebrated their profits from selling bits of paper emblazoned with Spider Man declaring "Stick with me, Valentine!" Certainly everyone could agree that it is peculiar that a holy day originally commemorating the martyrdom of ancient saints eventually turned into a celebration of romantic love. More learned hands than mine have attempted to write on the subject, and by no means do I intend to offer a definitive explanation of the transformation. My objective is only to throw out some interesting facts regarding the holiday in the limited space that I have available here. If I haven't bored you to death already, but you're getting tempted to say "tl;dr," (that's "too long; didn't read") stick with me here because the story gets interesting and involves whips and public nudity.
Hopefully that last sentence piqued your interest and I've got you for at least the next paragraph. While there is no hard evidence that Valentine's Day is related to ancient pagan rites, the ancient Romans did celebrate a festival known as Lupercalia in mid-February. This festival was essentially an honorary celebration of the she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, the progenitors of the Eternal City. Lupercalia, like many Roman festivals, involved a fair degree of public nudity, men dressed in goatskins, and, a'hem, whips. At this point, I would like to note that I am not trying to fill the pages of this reputable publication with scandalous tabloid journalism. As anyone who has ever read ancient poetry would know, the Romans produced material that would make even the perviest purveyors of tabloid tales blush. Regardless, the Romans, lacking the finer scientific details behind fertility, simply believed that if young women held out there hands to be whipped by men running half-naked through the streets, their chances of conceiving would increase. As one may expect, Lupercalia did not last long following the adoption of Christianity in Rome.
Some have asserted that early proto-versions of Valentine's Day soon replaced Lupercalia; however, these claims seem to be misguided. The romantic Valentine's Day, as we know it, likely did not begin to make waves in the Western World until the late Fourteenth Century when Chaucer wrote of birds choosing their mates on St. Valentine's Day. The link of romantic love and Valentine's Day was apparently popular. By about 1600, Shakespeare had adopted the link, writing, in Hamlet, of the desire to "be one's Valentine." By the Eighteenth Century, Chaucer's simple verse on birds seeking their mates had transformed into a veritable industry for writers, with publishers selling books of poems for men to read to their sweethearts. As mass production became easier, these books of poems were eventually condensed into simple verses that could be printed on a postcard and delivered to one's Valentine.
There you have it, fun factoids for history lovers on Valentine's Day. At least, I found them fun; though I would understand if you got to the end of this article and decided that your idea of "fun fact" differs greatly from mine. If nothing else, just remember that "six degrees of separation" can apply to link Spiderman Valentine's cards with Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Andrew Tarne is a 3L at the University of Richmond School of Law. Submit comments and letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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