Did Pope Gelasius create St Valentine’s Day as a replacement for the Lupercalia?

Something weird has begun to happen over the last couple of years.   Twitter is filling up with claims that “Christmas is really pagan”; the same for Easter (!), St Valentine’s Day – indeed for every single Christian holiday.  This is new, and started maybe in 2018, and now has become very commonplace.  The object is without a doubt to diminish the Christian significance of American holidays.  I get the impression that this may be part of the anti-Trump reaction.  It is clearly orchestrated, and obviously a nuisance.

This year I came across the claim that St Valentine’s Day is really the Lupercalia (!), and that Pope Gelasius I abolished the Lupercalia and created St Valentine’s Day instead.  One website calling itself “history.com” claims:

In the late 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead, although it’s highly unlikely he intended the day to commemorate love and passion.

And the same website on another page:

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.

Google helpfully puts these pages at the very top of the search results if you look for information.  They seem to be drawing on an article which otherwise appears a bit further down, National Public Radio, The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day, Feb. 13, 2011, which claims:

Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. Lenski adds, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”

Lenski is “Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder”.  Of course he may well have been misrepresented by this journalist.  But is this true?  Did Gelasius establish St Valentine’s Day on February 14?

In a 1931 article,[1]William M. Green indicates that Cardinal Baronius must take some responsibility for all this.

… in almost all the discussions of the institution it is said that Pope Gelasius in 494 converted the pagan festival into the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (=Candlemas). This conjecture of Cardinal Baronius[4] was based on the fact that Gelasius had suppressed the pagan festival, and that the quadragesima Epiphaniae (February 14), the earliest form of the Christian festival, so nearly coincided with its date, February 15. Usener and later writers on Christian ritual [5] have recognized Baronius’ mistake…

4. C. Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici (Barri-Ducis; L. Guerin, 1864-83), IX, 603.
5. H. Usener, Weihnachtsfest (Bonn: Cohen, 1889), p. 318; T. Barnes, “Candlemas” in Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribner’s, 1908-190; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship5 (London: SPCK, 1923), p.271.

So the modern idea that the Lupercalia turned into St Valentine’s Day is itself a bastardisation of an older idea, that the Lupercalia turned into Candlemas.

We do know that Gelasius did abolish the Lupercalia.  In Letter 100, to Andromachus, in the Collectio Avellana he explicitly says so, and defends his action to his noble correspondent by attacking the remains of the Lupercalia as a degraded superstition.  (I was unaware until now that an edition of this exists in the Sources Chretiennes series, 65).[2]

Another article by Jack B. Oruch is more forthright:[3]

The idea that Valentine’s Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present.22 Most of those who offer this now traditional explanation cite no sources or refer only to Butler or Douce. But John W. Hales, in the most substantial and reasonable article written about Valentine’s Day, correctly pointed out that the Lupercalia never involved the pairing of lovers or a lottery.23 As far as I can determine, the first suggestions of a lottery of lovers on Valentine’s Day occur in the fifteenth century in poems of Lydgate and Charles d’Orleans, discussed below; the only known attempt to suppress the practice and substitute the names of saints was that of St. Francis de Sales early in his career as bishop at Annecy (1603).24 Butler’s ideas were prompted, in all probability, by a confused knowledge of the date of this isolated event; a less charitable explanation would attribute his remarks to wishful or pious fantasy.

The most complex version of this story – one that links the Lupercalia, Valentine, and Chaucer – has recently been put forth by Alfred L. Kellogg and Robert C. Cox[4]… According to Kellogg and Cox, the process by which St. Valentine became a “fertility figure” was an indirect and accidental one. They report: “When, in 495, Pope Gelasius finally abolished the Lupercalia, his procedure followed the accepted pattern. He set in its place a Christian festival of comparable meaning and almost exact date – the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas, celebrated on February 14” (p. 112). Then, after the date of the observance of Candlemas was “transferred from February 14 to February 2” (to accord with the fixing of the date of Christ’s birth at December 25), Valentine in some unknown way inherited the associations of the Virgin Mary with purification and fertility. Unfortunately, the account thus far is based upon faulty assumptions and misunderstood data.

Informed scholarship offers nothing to support the claim that Gelasius I “baptized” the Lupercalia by supplanting it with the Feast of the Purification…. Other medieval writers [than Bede] gave different explanations of the origin of the Feast of the Purification, but not until the unfortunate conjectures of Cardinal Baronius in the sixteenth century was the particular pagan festival behind Candlemas. said to be the Lupercalia.29 While the church did supplant some pagan customs with Christian ones, in the present case the similarities between the Lupercalia and Candlemas appear to be fortuitous and negligible. To suggest a place for St. Valentine in a history already marked by so much speculation is pointless.

Which is pretty direct.  There’s simply no evidence, apparently, of any connection with St Valentine.

I’m not quite clear how we discover what the early evidence is for the celebration of a saint’s day.  It appears that we must look at early service books, and this is rather an area outside of my knowledge.

The so-called Gelasian Sacramentary does indeed have prayers in natali Valentini, Vitalis et Feliculae on xvi Kal. Martias, i.e. 14th February.  (How interesting to see natalis used to indicate an anniversary, rather than a  birthday!).[5]  This has reached us in a Vatican manuscript (Ms. reg. lat. 316), written around 750 at the nunnery of Chelles near Paris.  The original text was probably composed in Rome between 628-715.[6]

I do wonder how we could find out when the feast of St Valentine was first celebrated!

UPDATE: I have just heard from Dr Lenski, disclaiming any responsibility for the mangled comments attributed to him in that NPR article.

UPDATE (18 Feb 2022): I have finally worked out how to find out the earliest references to the feast of St Valentine, and written about it here.

  1. [1]William M. Green, “The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century”, Classical Philology 26 (1931), 60-69.  JSTOR.
  2. [2]Gélase Ier : Lettre contre les Lupercales et Dix-huit messes du Sacramentaire léonien. SC65, 1960.
  3. [3]Jack B. Oruch, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February”, Speculum 56 (1981). 534-65.  JSTOR.
  4. [4]25. “Chaucer’s St. Valentine: A Conjecture,” in Alfred L. Kellogg, Chaucer, Langland, Arthur: Essays in Middle English Literature (New Brunswick, N.J., 1972), p. 108.
  5. [5]H.A.Wilson, The Gelasian Sacramentary. Liber Sacramentorum Romanae Ecclesiae, Oxford, 1894, p.167.  Archive.org.
  6. [6]Joseph M. Lynch, Christianizing Kinship, p.29. Google Books.

From my diary

It is now four months since I fell ill with some minor but annoying problem that gave me splitting headaches all day long and left me washed out.  Thankfully those are nearly gone, and although I am still rather weak, I now believe that I will make a full recovery.  It’s been an expensive time, sitting at home, but there was no alternative.  I have also been unable to do very much blogging, as regular readers will know.

One of the things that I have wanted to do is to translate from Latin a couple of “saint’s lives”.  The last time that I did this, I became very dissatisfied with my limited knowledge of Latin syntax.  My knowledge of Latin came from my schooldays, and was mainly a matter of grammar – amo, amas, amat etc.  I did retain knowledge of structures like the ablative absolute, and the accusative plus infinitive for reported speech.  But it became clear to me that I ought to work more on this.

When I work with Latin, I always use a parser to do the vocabulary and grammar, because my memory has started to let me down at times.  In fact I use QuickLatin, which I wrote back in 1999.  It seemed to me that I needed to add syntax information to this, so that it would warn me of common constructions.

In order to do this, I had to do some very serious work on the code.

My first encounter with parsers was with Whitaker’s Words.  This was written by Col. William A. Whitaker (d. 2010), and was written in the military language Ada as a command-line application.  I wanted something that worked in Windows.

In February 1999 I was recruited to work on a military project where there was actually very little to do.  Anybody with experience of government programmes will know that these are incredibly wasteful and slow.  In this case somebody had decided, sometime around 1992, that a computer system was necessary to list the whereabouts of spare parts for a certain type of bomber.  The idea was that cost savings could be made if, instead of stocking all the spare parts necessary, NATO allies could borrow them from each other.  So if the Soviets invaded, and somebody needed a spare part, then they could look at this system, find that the Italians had one, and borrow that.  As you would, with the Soviets bombing every road and railway and the tanks rolling through West Germany.

Obviously this was a completely bonkers idea.  It could never work.  Who thought of it, and why, I have no idea.  There was also the little matter that the Soviet Union had collapsed a couple of years earlier.  Probably there had been several  years of planning, and the process had continued even though the purpose of NATO had disappeared.

The system was not a large one.  In my professional experience, it could have been completed in three months by a team consisting of a team leader and three programmers.

When I joined, in 1999, there was a team of two team leaders and eight programmers.  The software was all years out of date.  The project itself was seven years late.  I worked there for a year, doing minor fixes, and I probably didn’t make it any worse.  What became of it I know not.

Sitting in that office, bored to tears, my thoughts turned to Latin.  I ended up reading the source code for Col. Whitaker’s masterpiece and implementing a version of much of it in Visual Basic for Applications, in a MS Access database.  This was obviously the wrong tool, but it was all that there was on my desktop.  Later I transformed this into Visual Basic 6, and this formed the code base for QuickLatin.

VB6 is now long gone and dead.  Even installing it on Windows 10 is difficult.  So I had to convert and rewrite the code into Visual Basic .Net, as I have mentioned in previous posts, so that I could move forward.  This I did, and I have spent most of my active time in the last four months working on this.

It was also an opportunity to chop out some very tangled code.  Not all the language features used in Ada were available in VBA, nor even in VB6, so I had to code around these.  In fact some are still unavailable in VB.Net.

Col. Whitaker continued to work on his software after 1999, however, although I did not revisit the code.  Recently I came across a feature that he had added which I felt should be part of QuickLatin also.  So I have been looking again at the Ada source code, and trying to convert some of the bits to VB.Net.

The Ada code is remarkably difficult to read, and always was.  The colonel knew what he was trying to do, and did not need to write notes.  The reader is not so fortunate.  I saw a line of code yesterday which read:


and I felt rather hard done by!  Who or what is K and NK?  (After some examination, I decided that it was a stupid way to test something that I could do better another way).

But the colonel did his time in days before most modern coding constructs existed.  His code isn’t really structured in the way that any professional code written after 1985 would be.  The idea of test-driven development only appeared in the last few years of his life.  For Whitaker the Array was his tool; the idea of the HashMap does not seem to have registered.  But these are not criticisms; rather they are a reminder of how far we have come since I started coding.

It is quite interesting to work again on the colonel’s code, after 21 years!  I shall keep plodding away.  At least VB.Net is a far better language to work in than VBA ever was.

Writing in VB6 in 1999, I wrote the user interface in WinForms.  I discovered today that this too is obsolete – I should now use WPF, whatever that is.  I will need to check whether there is an even more recent tool, in fact!  In a way this is a relief.  But it will all take time.

However I have started looking for Latin language constructs.  My guide in this has been Morwood’s Oxford Latin Grammar, which has a very readable section on syntax.  I have also found that simply googling a construction often brings up very readable material.  I discovered “Vir drinks beer” which is focused on Latin-to-English translation, as I am.  A day or two ago I discovered Michael Fontaine’s Hack your Latin articles.

I’ve also been reading verses from Genesis in the Vulgate.  I downloaded to my phone the “sample” from Kindle, which was free and gave me more than enough stuff to read.  I find that if I lie on the sofa and read, looking at the Latin, I find myself wondering “ah, that’s gone into the subjunctive – why?” and such like.  Again I can google bits of it.  So it seems to be really beneficial to do.  I can only do this for a few verses at a time, tho.

Meanwhile I have started to look at job adverts.  I would like to start earning again.  I would like to be able to afford a couple of expensive foreign trips once I am fit enough to do them, if coronavirus does not make visiting airports a rather chancy business.  Unfortunately there are some tax changes here which are due to take effect in April.  These are already disrupting the industry very badly.  It looks unlikely that I will be able to afford to work away from home, if I must pay basic-rate tax at 50%, and then pay for hotel rooms out of taxed income.  Yet my work has always meant working away from home, for there is little work locally.  So I wonder whether I shall be forced to retire.

There is much to think upon.  Meanwhile, I shall return to working on the Latin.


A concise explanation of the legal basis for Roman persecution of Christians

Tertullian tells us, in his Apologeticum that Christians were told, simply, “Non licet esse vos!” (You are not allowed to exist!)  I happened to see a very nice summary of what this meant, and what it tells us, in Servais Pinckaers Spirituality of Martyrdom, p.66.

It was new to me, and I thought that others might find it interesting also.

The traditional explanation of Christian persecution traces its origin to an imperial decree dating back to Nero or Domitian that Tertullian calls the Institutum neronianum. The text is no longer extant, but if it existed it probably contained these terms of proscription: “Non licet esse Christianos” [Being a Christian is forbidden]. This expression underlies many sayings of authors such as Tertullian: “What a harsh law you have written, which says to us: you are forbidden to exist” (non licet esse vos). The apologists consistently reaffirm that Christians were accused merely of being Christians; that they were reproached only for bearing that name, and Tertullian repeatedly asserts that the sentence condemning them indicates no other crime than that. The magistrate would remind the accused of that concise decree, “non licet esse Christianos,” to which the accused would reply, if he were faithful, “Christianus sum” (I am a Christian), and the case would be closed.[1]

This explanation relies upon Trajan’s rescript of 112 CE in response to a letter from Pliny the Younger. Pliny displayed a rigorous but exact interpretation of the legislation, which he used to condemn Christians propter solum nomen—solely on account of the name:

“I make it a sacred duty, my lord, to consult you with my scruples, for who can better guide or instruct me? I have never attended the trial or sentencing of any Christian. I therefore do not know the exact offenses for which they are prosecuted nor the extent to which they are punished.  I am particularly hesitant about whether to make distinctions according to age. Should we impose the same punishment without distinguishing the younger from the older? Should we pardon those who repent, or is the renunciation of Christianity useless once it has been embraced? Is it the name only that we punish? Or are there crimes attached to that name?”

The emperor approves and confirms the obligation to punish nomen si flagitiis careat (the name, even without misdeeds) and not merely the flagitia nomini coherentia (the misdeeds associated with the name).

This rescript of Trajan presupposes an existent law against Christians, dating back at least to Nero or Domitian, which interpretation he solidifies. According to Tertullian, “Under the reign of Augustus this name [Christian] has arisen, under Tiberius it has shown its discipline, and under Nero it has met with condemnation.  Yet only this institution of Nero has survived, while the others were destroyed” (Ad Nationes I, ch.7).

And so, legally speaking, this very characteristic of being a Christian would seem to serve as the basis of the persecution of the first centuries. The historians still debate the existence of that anti-Christian law. Some think that the legal precedent was laid down by Trajan’s rescript itself. [But] regardless of the historical debate surrounding its legal origins, the persecuted Christians understood the basis of the accusation against them to be the mere fact that they were Christians: “Non licet esse christianos.”

That is rather neatly put, and rather useful to have.


A pagan philosopher writes against Manichaeism: Alexander of Lycopolis and his “Against the Manichaeans”

While re-reading Anthony Kaldellis’ A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities I came across the following entry (p.129):

Around A.D. 300, one Alexander of Lycopolis wrote a treatise Against the Manichaeans, which begins with a lucid account of the transformation of Christian thought in his time.

“The philosophy of the Christians is fairly simple. It is mostly concerned with ethical teaching and gives only hints when it comes to the more esoteric questions about the nature of God… . Its precepts are rather crude, but they do help the common people improve their lives. However, later generations subdivided this philosophy by engaging in contentious disputations to which there can really be no solution, and the people have been led into fractious quarrels too. As each of these teachers strives to impress others by the novelty of his doctrines, they have turned this formerly simple philosophy into an unspeakable mess.”

It is unknown whether Alexander was a pagan or a Christian himself.

This, I think, is really rather interesting!  It certainly sounds like a pagan, rather than a Christian.

I’d never heard of Alexander of Lycopolis, so I found myself scurrying around to find information about his book.

The title of the work in the manuscript is Ἀλεξάνδρου Λυκοπολίτου, ἐπιστρέψαντος ἐξ ἐθνῶν, πρός τάς Μανιχαίου δόξας.  A misunderstanding of this title by the first editor, Combefis, led earlier scholars to suppose that it was a work by a pagan convert to Manichaeism, who then became Bishop of Lycopolis.  It should be understood as “Alexander of Lycopolis, converted from the pagans, against the teaching of the Manichaeans”.

But there is nothing in the text that suggests a Christian writer.  Rather this is the work of a pagan philosopher, a Platonist, responding to the infiltration of Manichaeans into his own lectures, who started carrying off his students.  They are named as Papos and Thomas, and both appear in Manichaean literature in Egypt.

The discovery of physical books at Medinet Madu and Kellis makes plain that Manichaeism was very successful in Egypt, just as gnosticism had been.  It quickly became illegal because Mani was seen as a Persian, and so a threat to state security.

Alexander talks about Christianity, because he sees Manichaeism as a Christian heresy.  In this he is correct.  In fact I am told that it is explicitly stated in the Cologne Mani codex that Mani was educated in an Elchesaite environment.[1]

The standard edition of the text is A. Brinkmann, Alexander Lycopolitanus: Contra Manichaei Opiniones Disputatio, B.G.Teubner (1895), online at Archive.org.  From this I learn that the oldest manuscript is in Florence, Mediceo-Laurentianus plutei IX codex 23, of the 9th-10th century, in which the text appears between Didymus the Blind, Contra Manichaeos, and a fragment of Methodius.  This does not appear to be online.  The other mss are merely derived from it:

  • Ottobonianus gr. 194, paper, 15-16th c.
  • Vindobonensis theol. gr. 52 (or possibly 193), paper, 16th c.
  • Barberini III 81, paper, ’16-17th c.’

and a number of 17th century copies.  The text seems to have no conclusion, so I would suspect that it has not reached us in a complete form.

It was first edited by Franciscus Combefis in Bibliothecae graecorum patrum auctarii nobissimi, part 2, Paris, 1672, with a Latin translation.  A reprint of this by Galland in 1768 was reprinted by Migne in the Patrologia Graeca 18, col. 411, in 1857.  Brinkmann’ edition begins thus:

Because the work was printed among the fathers, it was generally assumed to be by Alexander, bishop of Lycopolis, although no evidence of this was forthcoming.  For the same reason it was translated in the 19th century and appears in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, in a truly wretched English translation from the Galland edition in 1869 by a certain James B. H. Hawkins, Curate of Ilminster.  This may be read here, if you try hard enough.  As a sample, here is the beginning of chapter 1:

The philosophy of the Christians is termed simple. But it bestows very great attention to the formation of manners, enigmatically insinuating words of more certain truth respecting God; the principal of which, so far as any earnest serious purpose in those matters is concerned, all will have received when they assume an efficient cause, very noble and very ancient, as the originator of all things that have existence. For Christians leaving to ethical students matters more toilsome and difficult, as, for instance, what is virtue, moral and intellectual; and to those who employ their time in forming hypotheses respecting morals, and the passions and affections, without marking out any element by which each virtue is to be attained, and heaping up, as it were, at random precepts less subtle-the common people, hearing these, even as we learn by experience, make great progress in modesty, and a character of piety is imprinted on their manners, quickening the moral disposition which from such usages is formed, and leading them by degrees to the desire of what is honourable and good.

But this being divided into many questions by the number of those who come after, there arise many, just as is the case with those who are devoted to dialectics, some more skilful than others, and, so to speak, more sagacious in handling nice and subtle questions; so that now they come forward as parents and originators of sects and heresies. And by these the formation of morals is hindered and rendered obscure; for those do not attain unto certain verity of discourse who wish to become the heads of the sects, and the common people is to a greater degree excited to strife and contention. And there being no rule nor law by which a solution may be obtained of the things which are called in question, but, as in other matters, this ambitious rivalry running out into excess, there is nothing to which it does not cause damage and injury.

Ugh!  It appears to be in English, but not a single idea is conveyed to the mind.

Fortunately a more modern translation exists, P.W. van der Horst & J. Mansfeld, An Alexandrian Platonist against Dualism: Alexander of Lycopolis’ Treatise ‘Critique of the Doctrines of Manichaeus’, Leiden, 1974.

The philosophy of the Christians is a simple philosophy. It is chiefly devoted to ethical instruction, while in so far as relatively precise statements of the Christians about God are concerned it remains ambiguous. The endeavours in this direction amount to the assumption that the productive cause is the most honourable, the most important and the cause of all beings, an idea to which, in all fairness, no one will take exception. In ethics too they avoid the more difficult problems such as what is ethical and what is intellectual virtue  and the whole subject of dispositions and affections. Hence they merely devote themselves to ethical exhortation, without laying down the principles according to which each individual virtue should be acquired, but indiscriminately heaping up precepts of a rather ponderous nature. Ordinary people listen to these precepts and, as you can see with your own eyes, make great progress in virtue, and a stamp of piety is imprinted on their characters, stimulating the moral disposition which grows from this sort of habituation and leading them by degrees towards the desire of the good.

Since this simple philosophy has been split up into numerous factions by its later adherents, the number of issues has increased just as in sophistry, with the result that some of these men became even  more skilful and, so to speak, more prone to creating issues than others. Indeed some of them, in the long run, became leaders of sects. Consequently, ethical instruction declined and grew dim, since none of those who wanted to be leaders of sects was able to attain theoretical precision  and since the common people became more inclined to internal strife. For there was no norm or laws on the basis of which issues could be decided.

Which at least means something.

There is a commentary by André Villey, Alexandre de Lycopolis, Contre la doctrine de Mani, Paris: Cerf 1985.  This I have not seen.

There is also a useful article by Johannes van Oort on the present state of research.[2]  An earlier draft is accessible on Academia here.

An obscure and interesting work.

  1. [1]This from Pieter W. van der Horst, “Alexander of Lycopolis on Christianity”, in: Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy. Presented to Jaap Mansfeld on his Sixtieth Birthday, 1996, p.314, with reference “S. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire 1-85”. There is a Google books preview of van Horst which infuriatingly makes pages visible at random.  I have found paging down past invisible pages to a visible page, then paging back up again sometimes makes the upper pages visible again!  Link here.
  2. [2]J. Van Oort, “The Platonist Philosopher Alexander of Lycopolis on Manichaeism”, Journal of Early Christian History 2 (2012), p.86-94.