Valentine’s Day: Its Gory, Unromantic Secret History

The origin of Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love and everything to do with “torturous martyrdom.” On second thought, perhaps the origin of Valentine’s Day has a great deal to do with love.

The origin of Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love and everything to do with “torturous martyrdom.” On second thought, perhaps the origin of Valentine’s Day has a great deal to do with love. *

Originally, the feast day of St. Valentine remembered two 3rd century martyrs by the name of Valentine who were elevated to sainthood in the early middle ages. Both Valentines—one the Bishop of Terni and the other a priest in Rome—were allegedly decapitated by their persecutors on February 14.  

Incidentally, St. Valentine (as the two Valentines seem to have merged into one figure by the 9th century) is the patron saint of epileptics, not lovers.

Medieval miracle plays based on the Bishop of Terni Valentine show him brutally beaten, bloodied, and decapitated before angels transport him to heaven. It really puts you in a mood for love.

According to author Leigh E. Schmidt, several locales in Europe claimed Terni’s relics, as they were widely dispersed. Several different shrines claimed possession of his skull.

There was no link between St. Valentine’s Day and love until the 14th century. At that time, some scholars claim that Chaucer associated Valentine’s Day with lovers by describing it as the day on which birds select their mates.

More plausibly, writes Elizabeth White Nelson, the tradition of expressing love on Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite held on February 15.  Typically, the medieval church would try to combine saints’ feast days with pagan festivals, to boost Church loyalty and participation.

Whatever the reasons, by the 1500s the link between Valentine’s Day, courtship, and love was established.  The religious meanings of the day faded; its amorous meanings grew.

Rituals emerged in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s to divine future spouses on Valentine’s Day. Some young people went to churchyards at midnight to await an omen, but drawing lots was the most common practice of divination. Clergyman Henry Bourne explained in 1725, “it is a ceremony, …to draw Lots, which they term Valentines….The names of a select number of one Sex, are by an equal Number of the other put into some Vessel; and, after that, every one draws a Name, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as good Omen of their Man and Wife afterwards.”

The “drawing lots” ceremony could get ugly, and vicious. In France this celebration of the lottery of love became fractious. In France, explains Elizabeth White Nelson, once the valentines had been chosen, the woman prepared a meal for the man, and they attended a public dance. If the man was displeased, he would leave her, and she would remain in seclusion for eight days.

But, at the end of this time, “all the women who had been spurned gathered in the town square and burned their valentines in effigy.”

This carnival of romantic revenge often escalated into riots, such that in 1776 the French parliament outlawed the ritual, and it had practically disappeared by the 1810s.

When Valentine’s Day migrated to the United States, it was well established as a holiday for love, but was scarcely observed in the 1700s.

Then, in the 1840s and 1850s there was a “valentine’s epidemic.” Cards were flying through the penny post, and “Valentine” came to denote the card, not the person. Dismayed defenders of the faith felt that the penny post valentine cheapened affection, and joked that many a postal carrier was crushed under his bag of cheaply-produced letters strewn with cooing birds and hearts.

A rich, hilarious world of romantic charivari—an Anti-Valentine’s tradition—developed parallel to the ornately sentimental and sincere valentines.  The first card manufacturers offered “comic” valentines that engaged in “ritualized mockery” and insult.  These cards ridiculed professions—members of a certain craft, for example—but mostly lampooned old maids, social poseurs, male dandies who refused to marry, and feminists. Read one card of the 1850s (reprinted in Schmidt’s book):

You ugly, cross, and wrinkled shrew,

You advocate of woman’s rights,

No man on earth would live with you

For fear of endless fights

Another features the devil pitch-forking an old maid. “The End of the Old Maids,” it began:

Oh what a very sorry sight it is,

to see an aged lady still a Miss,

to know that single she must live and work,

and in the end be toasted on a fork.

The influential Godey’s magazine decried that these mock valentines were “so gross and disgusting that it would seem only savages or brutes could have prepared them.”  

They couldn’t quibble with the sales, however. Surprisingly, the cultural undertow of satirical, mock valentines sold just as briskly as the tenderly affectionate ones.  Even in the putatively more sincere Victorian age of intricate, lacey, effusive cards, Valentine’s Day had an unromantic, sardonic alter ego.

Purists in the 1840s and 1850s saw even the more sentimental commercial cards as “an abomination,” opined the Philadelphia Public Ledger. “What satisfaction is it to a lady to receive a printed declaration, embossed and gilded according to a set pattern, and which is a precise facsimile of fifty thousand others which she knows to have been sent to half the young ladies in the town?” Another essayist in 1845 called valentine’s cards “a vile variety of the bribe kind—the most cutting form of dismissal” in its lack of authenticity or spontaneity.

To manage the paradox that a generic, mass-produced valentine was being asked to convey a heartfelt, singular emotion, a whole new business emerged of “valentine writer books.” These books provided verses that could be copied into a valentine and presented as the sender’s own words, and unique creation. Elizabeth White Nelson describes a book in which two of the poems of prepared verse are marked with the names of two women, one in pencil and one in pen, both in the same hand.

So, all you cranks and cynics take heart:  Valentine’s Day had a decidedly unromantic genesis, and even after the holiday got alloyed to romantic love, it had its own subversive, cynical undertow right from the start, whether it be the riots and effigies of failed love, the charivari mockery valentines, or the valentine writer’s plagiary book to achieve “authentic” expression.


* I draw this material from three scholarly sources that include material on Valentine’s Day: Leigh E. Schmidt, Consumer Rites; Elizabeth White Nelson, Market Sentiments; and Frank Staff, The Valentine and its Origins.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

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  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
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