Databases are handy things. The truly wonderful Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity database at Oxford University allows you to search and see just what the earliest mentions are of the cultus of any particular saint. Even better, it is open-access.
Today I did a simple search on St Valentine, Valentinus, and the results can be found at that site by this link here. The sources identify two St Valentine’s, of Rome and of Terni, although both are celebrated on 14 February and they may well be the same saint.
The search is useful because every Valentine’s Day we hear the claim that the feast was just a rebranding of Lupercalia by Pope Gelasius I in 496. No ancient source is ever produced for the claim, but this does not stop our mass media repeating it.
So let us look and see just what ancient evidence there is for St Valentine. Let’s use what the Cult of Saints database tells us, with whatever else we can find. I’ll highlight mentions of 14 February. But these are very thin indeed. Most of it is about the shrine of St Valentine, a mile along the Via Flaminia.
- 354 AD – the Chronography of 354, in part 13, the Liberian Catalogue (here), records Pope Julius I building St Valentine’s Church. Excavations at the site, which is one mile outside the gate on the Flaminian Way, have revealed a mid-fourth-century basilica, centred on an early fourth century memorial of some sort – presumably a grave.
- 366 / 384 – fragments of a marble tablet in Philocalian lettering, most likely by Pope Damasus, from the St Valentine church complex: also three other fragments from the same area, discovered in 1888.
- No later than 600 AD – the Martyrdom of Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abacuc of Persia (BHL 8465) is composed, with the Life of St Valentine of Rome embedded in it. (English of the Valentine bits here)
- Around 600? – the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (original material 430-450, but preserved only in a massively rewritten version from Gaul in 592) states in the entry for 14 February: “At Terni, at the sixty-fourth mile of the Via Flaminia, the death of St Valentine.”
- 625-638 AD – the Notitia Ecclesiarum Urbis Romae, a guide to the graves of saints around Rome, states that “St Valentine the martyr rests on the Via Flaminia, in a large basilica which Honorius restored.”
- 635-645 AD – the De locis sanctis martyrum states “near to the Via Flaminia appears the wonderfully decorated church of St. Valentine the martyr.”
- Soon after 649 AD – the Liber Pontificalis for Pope Theodorus mentions the building (or rebuilding?) of a church on the via Flaminia dedicated to Valentinus. (See below)
- Soon after 685 AD – the Liber Pontificalis for Pope Benedict II mentions repairs to the church of Valentine, offerings there, and “in February after St Valentine’s day”. (See below)
- 642-683 AD – the Itinerarium Malmesburiense records the church of St Valentine, and the renaming of the Flaminian Gate of Rome to Saint Valentine Gate. (See below)
- 650 AD – the Gelasian Sacramentary (about which I wrote here) gives three prayers for the “natalis” (anniversary) of Saints Valentine, Vitalis, and Felicula. (See below)
- Before 700 AD – the Passio of Valentinus of Terni (BHL 8460) is composed. (English translation via here)
- 703 / 710 AD – the Calendar of Willibrod. Various saints days in February including Valentine on 14 February. (Latin and English at the database here).
- 725 / 731 AD – the Venerable Bede in his Martyrology records the feasts of both Valentinus on 14 February. (See below)
From this we learn that the earliest reference to 14 February for the commemoration of St Valentine is not before 600 AD, although no doubt the date was assigned earlier.
* * * *
I thought it would be useful to quote the shorter sources not otherwise linked. Here they are:
Chronography of 354, part 13 – the Liberian Catalogue for Pope Julius I:
hic multas fabricas fecit: basilicam in via Portese miliario III; basilicam in via Flaminia mil. II quae appellatur Valentini;
This one made much building work: a basilica in the via Portese at the 3rd milestone; a basilica in the Flaminian Way at the 2nd milestone, which is called the Valentinian;
Secunda porta Flamminia, quae modo appellatur sancti Valentini, et via Flamminia; et cum ad pontem Molbium peruenit, uocatur via Rauennana, quia ad Rauennam ducit. Ibi in primo miliario foris sanctus Valentinus in sua aecclesia requiescit.
The second gate, the Flaminia, which is now called saint Valentinus’ gate, and the via Flaminia; and when it reaches the Milvian bridge, it is called the via Ravennana, because it leads to Ravenna. There, at the first milestone outside the walls, rests saint Valentinus in his own church.
Liber Pontificalis 75 (Theodore)
Fecit et ecclesiam beato Valentino via Flamminea, iuxta pontem Molbium a solo, quam et ipse dedicavit et dona multa optulit.
5. He also built from the ground up the church to St Valentine on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian Bridge; he dedicated it and presented many gifts.
Liber Pontificalis 83 (Benedict II)
Hic ecclesiam beati Petri apostoli sed et beati Laurenti martyris qui appellatur Lucinae restauravit itemque in ecclesia beati Valentini via Flamminea fecit coopertorium super altare cum clavos in fistellis et in circuitu palergium chrisoclavum pretiosissimum. Similiter in ecclesia beate Mariae ad martyres alium coopertorium porphyrum cum cruce et gammulas et clavos IIII auroclavos et in circuitu palergium de olosiricum pulcherrimum; necnon et in titulo suprascripto Lucine alium coopertorium ornatum de olosiricum. Fecit autem et calices aureos ministeriales II, pensantes singuli libras singulas.
2. He restored St Peter’s, and the church of the martyr St Laurence called that of Lucina. Also at St Valentine’s on the Via Flaminia he provided over the altar an altarcloth with studs and thin bands, with a very precious border around it, adorned with gold buttons; similarly at St Mary’s ad martyres another altarcloth of purple with a cross and chevrons and four gold-buttoned studs, with a very beautiful border all of silk; also at the above titulus of Lucina, another decorated altarcloth all of silk. He also provided 2 gold service chalices each weighing 1 lb. …
Huius temporibus apparuit stella noctu, iuxta vigilias, per dies, caelum serenum inter Domini et Theophania omnimodo obumbrata veluti luna sub nube. Itemque mense Februario, post natale sancti Valentini, in die, ab occasu exiit stella meridie et in partes Orientis declinavit.
4. In his time there appeared a star in the clear night sky, at about vigils, for some days between Christmas and Epiphany; it was totally overshadowed, like the moon beneath a cloud. Again in February after the feast of saint Valentinus, the star rose in daytime at midday in the west and sank in the eastern parts.
Orat. in Natali Valentini, Vitalis, et Feliculae. xvi Kal. Martias.
Tuorum nos, Domine, quaesumus, precibus tuere sanctorum: ut festa martyrum tuorum Valentini, Vitalis, et Feliculae sine cessatione venerantes, et fideli muniamur auxilio, et magnifico proficiamus exemplo. Per Dominum.
Secreta. Ad martyrum tuorum Valentini, Vitalis, et Feliculae, Domine, festa venientes, cum muneribus nomini tuo dicatis occurrimus: ut illis reverentiam deferentes nobis veniam impetremus. Per Dominum.
Postcommun. Protege, Domine, plebem tuam, et festivitate martyrum tuorum Valentini, Vitalis, et Feliculae, quam nobis tradis, assidue debita tibi persolvi precibus concede sanctorum. Per Dominum.
Prayers on the Commemoration of Valentine, Vitalis and Felicula. 14 February.
Protect us, we beseech thee, O Lord, by the prayers of your saints, that the feasts of your martyrs Valentine, Vitalis and Felicula may be venerated without ceasing and that we may be protected by the aid of the faithful, and that we may go forward by your magnificent example. In the Lord’s name.
Sec. We come to the feasts of your martyrs Valentine, Vitalis and Felicula, O Lord, we meet in your name with holy offerings: so that, showing respect by these, we may obtain forgiveness. In the Lord’s name.
Postc. Protect, O Lord, your people, and on the feast of your martyrs Valentine, Vitalis and Felicula, which you give to us, grant that our sins may be held paid by the prayers of the saints. In the Lord’s name.
Venerable Bede, Martyrology – Valentinus of Rome:
XVI. Kal. Mar. Natale sancti Valentini presbyteri, Romae: qui post multa sanitatum et doctrinae insignia, fustibus caesus, et sic decollatus est, sub Claudio Caesare.
14 February. At Rome, the feast of St Valentinus, priest: who after many public signs of healing and erudition, having been beaten with clubs, was also in this way beheaded, under Claudius Caesar.
Venerable Bede, Martyrology – Valentinus of Terni:
XVI. Kal. Mar. Natale sancti Valentini Interamnensis episcopi: qui tentus a paganis ac vergis caesus, et post diuturnam caedam custodiae mancipatus, cum superari non posset, mediae noctis silentio eiectus de carcere decollatus est, iussu Furiosi Placidi, Urbis praefecti. Tunc Proculus, Efybus et Apollonius discipuli eius transferentes corpus ad suam ecclesiam Interamnanae urbis noctu, sepelierunt: ubi cum quotidianis vigiliis incubarent, tenti a gentilibus custodiae sunt traditi consulari Leontio: quos ille iussit medio noctis suis tribunalibus praesentari: et cum a fide revocari nec blandimentis nec minis possent, iussit capite caedi: qui non longe sunt a corpore sancti Valentini sepulti.
14 February. The feast of St Valentinus bishop of Terni: who, detained by the pagans and beaten with rods and, after having been subjected to the long, slow slaughter of imprisonment, when he could not be vanquished, was tossed out of prison in the silence of the middle of the night and beheaded at the command of Furiosus Placidus, prefect of the city. Then Proclus, Efybus and Apollonius, his disciples, transferring his body by night to their church in the city of Terni, buried him: when they were abiding there with daily vigils, having been detained by the Gentiles, they were given over for guarding to the emperor’s governing legate, Leontius: he ordered them to be presented before his tribunal in the middle of the night: and when they could not be called away from the faith either by allurements or by threats, he ordered them to have their heads cut off: they were buried not far from the body of St Valentinus.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with what is today called St Valentine’s Day.
- Via Michael Lapidge, The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (2017), p.423. Preview.↩
- A. Ferrua, Epigrammata Damasiana, (1942) p.197-200; Trout, Damasus of Rome, 176-7. I was only able to access p.176 in Google Books preview, which showed that the text is pretty unreadable.↩
- Translated by Lapidge, appendix III, p.651.↩
- Translated by Lapidge, in appendix IV (a) [§1], p.660.↩
- Lapidge, in appendix IV (a) [§13], p.664.↩
- Bryan Ward-Perkins, Cult of Saints, E07885 – http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E07885↩
- Latin: Duchesne vol 1, p.332-3; English: Davis, The Book of Pontiffs, TTH 6, p.66.↩
- Latin: Duchesne vol 1, p.363; English: Davis, The Book of Pontiffs, TTH 6, p.77. Robert Wiśniewski, Cult of Saints, E01698 – http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E01698↩
- Latin from the Wilson edition, p.167 – Google Books, English by me.↩
- Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E05525 – http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E05525↩
- Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E05526 – http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E05526↩