“From your Valentine” – a modern legend, plus a bibliographical puzzle partly resolved

Anyone searching the web for information about Saint Valentine is going to come across a story where Valentine heals his jailer’s daughter, the two fall in love, and, on the morning of his execution he sends her a message signed “Your Valentine”.  There seems to be no canonical version of the story, so no two versions are quite alike.  One version referenced by Wikipedia – ah those “reliable sources” – is by Rosemary Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Saints, (2001) p.341 (preview).  This reads:

Little is known about the real Valentine. In fact, many early martyrologies listed two and sometimes three Valentines: a priest in Rome, a bishop in lnteramna (now Terni) and a third in Africa. Most scholars now presume that all three Valentines are the same man.

Most probably, Valentine either lived in Rome or was called from Terni to Rome as a consequence of his giving comfort to the martyrs under Emperor Claudius II, known as the Cruel. Imprisoned, Valentine, also a physician, reportedly converted his jailer to Christianity by restoring the eyesight of the jailer’s daughter. Brought before the Roman prefect, Valentine refused to renounce his faith and was beaten and beheaded on February 14. On the morning of his execution, he supposedly sent a farewell message to the jailer’s daughter, signed “from your Valentine.” His body was buried on the Flaminian Way in Rome, and his relics were taken to the church of St. Praxedes.

Another legend about Valentine has the priest surreptitiously marrying Roman couples when Claudius II, frustrated at his difficulty in taking men from their homes to be soldiers, outlawed marriage. In this version, Valentine languishes and dies in prison on the emperor’s orders but is not executed.

This unreferenced narrative is not a good account of the two sources, the passiones of St Valentine of Rome and St Valentine of Terni.  But anybody looking further will encounter a genuine scholarly work.  In Henry Ansgar Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, Brill (1986), p.59 (preview), we read:

There is nothing in the foregoing accounts of the Valentines of February to suggest a connection between any of them and the rites of spring, whether of birds or men, before Chaucer’s time. It was only centuries later that there was invented the story that St. Valentine of Rome wrote a farewell letter to Asterius’s daughter, which he signed, “Your Valentine.”[43]

Note 43 reads:

43. Frank Staff, The Valentine and its Origins (London. 1969). p. 122, says that “this little story is quoted from Kemmish’s Annual for 1797, and is reputed to come from ‘a very old book.'” A. Kemmish or Kemmisch was a publisher in Southwark; the British Museum catalogue lists Kemmisch’s Annual and Universal Valentine Writer. . . for 1805, but I have not been able to find a listing for a 1797 edition.

Kelly’s bafflement is understandable.  Kemmish’s Annual for 1805 is online here.  But a look at it reveals that it is just verses to be written to one’s sweetheart.  It can never have contained the material in question.  There does not seem to be any such Almanack for 1797.

I have found this bibliographical problem repeated in other places also – just where did Staff get his story from?

Staff’s book is not online, but fortunately a copy was available quite cheaply and arrived yesterday.  (On opening the volume my nostrils were assailed by the foul odour of a book left in a damp room. Booksellers must be the only trade to habitually sell unclean goods.)  The book itself is about the custom of “valentines”, the paper items sent at this time of year.  Only page 122 contains any background on St Valentine, and it deserves to be quoted in full.  There are no footnotes.


It is not known for certain which Saint Valentine is being honoured as the Patron Saint of Lovers on the 14th of February, because history records two saints of this name, both martyred at about the same time and both buried on the Flaminian Way, outside the Porta del Popolo of Rome.

During the Victorian era, when the giving of valentines was so popular, the story of the saint was often written-up in the form of articles which appeared fairly regularly as the Saint’s Day came round. Many of the writers more or less copied what had already been written before, but some, more serious, such as Professor John W. Hales, endeavoured to trace the origins and to give a more studious account. Professor Hales wrote an extremely interesting and learned article in the February 1882 number of The Antiquary. But it is thanks to Alban Butler, an eighteenth-century historian, who wrote an account of the lives of the saints, that the description and manner of the saint’s martyrdom has been recorded in the way we know. Some writers refer to Valentine as a Roman priest, and others to Bishop Valentine.

According to general belief, both the priest and the Bishop, who can be identified as the Bishop of Terni, a small town about 80 miles from Rome, were martyred in the same way and on the same day, the year varying between A.D. 270 and 273. This is repeated in the Encyclopedia Britannica which adds, “that the Passion of the priest Valentine is part of the legend of SS. Marius and Martha and their companions; that of the latter has no better historical foundation; so that no argument can be drawn from either account to establish the difference of the two saints. . . .” The account concludes by saying that The Martyrologium Hieronymianum mentions only one Valentinus: Interamnae Miliario LXIIII via Flaminia natale Valentini.

In a recent enquiry of the Comissione per l’Archeologia Cristiana in Rome, reference was made to the Enciclopedia Cristiana where it is stated that Saint Valentine was born in Terni, and is called a Roman martyr because in the year 273 he was executed in Rome, and because at that time Terni, which is within 100 miles of Rome, was under Roman jurisdiction. This therefore might be the reason for the confusion, the Bishop of Terni being referred to as a Roman Bishop. The Bishop of Terni is venerated at Terni, where, within a small Basilica to his memory, is an altar containing his relics. In the small ancient church of St. Praxedes in Rome is a glass-fronted wooden box which contains some of the bones of St. Valentine, together with those of St. Zenone. There can be little doubt that the Bishop of Terni and the Roman priest are one and the same.

From an unknown source comes the story that the Emperor Claudius issued a decree forbidding people to marry, because marriage kept men at home and the Emperor wanted all men to be soldiers and to fight for Rome. The good Valentine ignored this decree and invited young lovers to come to him in secret to be united with the blessing of the Church. Their secret marriages were discovered and the Emperor commanded Valentine to be thrown into prison and later executed. Another legend connected with the saint relates that whilst in prison awaiting his execution, he attempted to restore the sight of the keeper’s blind daughter, whom he had befriended. ” . . From that time the Girl became enamoured of him, nor did he treat her Affection with Contempt. But after a long imprisonment he was ordered for Publick Execution on the 14th of February. While in Prison being deprived of Books, he used to amuse himself with cutting curious Devices in Paper, on one of which he wrote some pious Exhortations and Assurances of Love, and sent to the Keeper’s Daughter the Morning of Execution; and being concluded in the Words, ‘Your Valentine’ there is great reason for supposing that to be the origin of the present Custom.”

This little story is quoted from Kemmish’s Annual for 1797, and is reputed to come from “a very old book”, but a moment’s reflection is sufficient to suggest this pretty little anecdote to be only fiction. It is perhaps unfortunate that the story is perpetuated by being related to schoolchildren and is sometimes quoted by greetings cards manufacturers. In this way, fiction and legend can so often be represented as fact.[1]

A simple Google search on “From that time the Girl became enamoured of him” instantly produced two results, which are really the same result.  It is not Kemmish’s Annual.  In fact it is a predecessor of the modern academic journal, “The Ladies’ Diary: or Woman’s Almanack… being the second after bisextile, or leap-year” 91 (1794), page 25 (here).  The journal was very interested in the study of mathematics, so this is by no means a trivial publication, at least in part.

The Ladies Diary, vol. 91 (1794). Cover.

The actual passage is this:

The Ladies’ Diary, vol. 91 (1794), p.25

I was unable to find the “Query II”, but plainly it asked what was the origin of “valentines”.  Three answers were printed, but only the first is of interest to us:

QUERY II.  answered by Mrs Diana Mason
I have by me a very old book which has the following account of Valentine being confined at Rome on account of his religion, and committed to the care of a man whose daughter was blind, whom Valentine restored to sight and from that time the girl became enamoured of him, nor did he treat her affection with contempt. But after a long imprisonment, he was ordered for public execution on the 14th of February. While in prison, being deprived of books, he used to amuse himself with cutting curious devices in paper, on one of which he wrote some pious exhortations and assurances of love, and sent to his keeper’s daughter the morning of his execution; and being concluded in the words “Your Valentine,” there is great reason for supposing that to be the origin of the present custom.

This is clearly the same story as that used by Staff, and is probably word for word identical with it.

But there is still a mystery here.  For the capitalisation and spelling in the Ladies’ Diary is modern, while that given by Staff is not – “Publick Execution”, for instance.  This spelling would tend to put the story back, from this witness at the end of the eighteenth century to the early part of it.

It is a blessing to have Google Books, and to be able to find material in this way.  It is unfortunate that earlier books are not so available upon it.  But we must be grateful for this relic of days when Google was indeed a public benison.

  1. [1]The John W. Hales, “St. Valentine’s Day”, The Antiquary 5 (1882), 41-50, is online here, but is merely concerned with English valentine customs.

One thought on ““From your Valentine” – a modern legend, plus a bibliographical puzzle partly resolved

  1. The second reply, linking valentines to the heretic Valentinian, is ingenious but nasty!

    It looks a lot like Notes and Queries. I suppose the idea was to allow women to reply to questions without being harassed, or having to retreat to initials.

    The interesting linguistic notes are the use of women’s first names in their titles, and the poem rhyming “joined” and “mankind”. Nice assonance of the long i sound throughout, in fact.

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