Who was Saint Valentine? And why was he beheaded?

Valentine's Day has a surprisingly raunchy history, going back thousands of years.

Who was Saint Valentine? And why was he beheaded?
The supposed skull of St. Valentine as displayed in Rome. Credit: Wikipedia.

Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine, who has become known as the patron saint of lovers. He was a rather mercurial figure about whom little is known.


Who was St. Valentine and how did he come to bless lovers' hearts in the middle of February? One can imagine some combination of a cherubic Cupid and a saintly old man with a nice smile fulfilling that role. The truth is, of course, more complicated. First of all, there was more than one Saint Valentine. There were three.

All three men lived during the 3rd century A.D. Two lived in Italy—Saint Valentine of Rome and Saint Valentine of Terni—while the third resided in a Roman province in North Africa. So which Saint Valentine do we celebrate on February 14th? 

That would be the life of Saint Valentine of Rome who, far from being lucky in love on February 14th, was beheaded. Hardly a romantic ending. However, it's likely that the stories of several Valentines merged into one as 'Valentius' (meaning 'worthy,' 'strong' and 'powerful' in Latin) was a popular moniker at the time. Several martyrs ended up with that name.

The church itself has some doubts about what specifically happened in Saint Valentine’s life. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I described St. Valentine as a martyr like those 'whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.' Gelasius I understood how little was known about the saint when establishing February 14th as the day to celebrate Valentine’s life.

Circa 260 AD, The trial of St Valentine, patron saint of lovers. Original Artist: By Bart Zeitblom (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

St. Valentine of Rome was supposedly a temple priest who was executed near Rome by the anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II. The crime? Helping Roman soldiers to marry when they were forbidden to by the Christian faith at the time. 

St. Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy) was a bishop who was also martyred. It is possible, however, that St. Valentine of Interamna and St. Valentine of Rome were the same person. One biography says that Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna but during a temporary stay in Rome, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded on February 14, 269 A.D. 

According to one historical account, the Roman Emperor went to such measures against Valentine because the saint tried to convert him to Christianity. This enraged Claudius, who tried to get Valentine to renounce his faith. The martyr refused, so the emperor ordered him beaten with clubs and stones, and subsequently executed him.

One (or two) St. Valentines are thought to be buried in a cemetery in the north of Rome. Little is known about the third Valentine in North Africa other than his supposed martyrdom. 

Saint Valentine.

How did we go from Christian martyrs to Hallmark cards? When Pope Gelasius I dedicated February 14th to the saint and martyr Valentine, he chose that date to replace the traditional Roman feast Lupercalia, a pagan festival popular at the time. Lupercalia was a fertility festival in honor of the god Faunus (Lupercus), the protector of sheep and goats from wolf attacks, as well as Lupa - the she-wolf who nurtured the orphans Romulus and Remus, associated with the founding of Rome by legend.

The pagan fertility celebration was marked by all manner of rituals like foot racing among naked men, covered in skins of sacrificed goats. Apparently, they would whip women staged along the race course as they ran. Another ritual required a child to pair couples at random who would have to live together and be intimate for an entire next year in order to fulfill the fertility rite. The church was eager to replace such practices with its own focus and St. Valentine became the saint of lovers.

Valentine's Day card from early 20th century.

As St. Valentine’s Day was spread to England and France by Benedictine monks, the practice started to acquire more modern characteristics in the Middle Ages. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in particular, is credited with spreading the notion of courtly romance through his writings, some dedicated to St. Valentine. 

Writing 'valentines' to your beloved is linked to that same time period, with the oldest such note dating to the 15th century. As reported by Italian Heritage, it was written by Charles d' Orléans, who was at that point held in the Tower of London, following his defeat at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Charles wrote to his wife the words that translated to: “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine”.

Shakespeare also took part in popularizing the link between Valentine's Day and love, writing about St. Valentine's day in a romantic context as part of his "Midsummer Night's Dream".

Exchanging "valentines" or love notes (often heart-shaped) on Valentine's Day further spread throughout Anglo-Saxon countries in the 19th century. Large-scale marketing and production of greetings cards started with the Industrial Revolution as early as mid-19th century. This process of commercialization of the holiday continued, especially in the United States, during the 20th century, adding additional traditions like more elaborate love notes, with added gifts like chocolates, flowers and jewelry.

So while the original St. Valentine was likely tortured and beheaded on February 14th, his sacrifice for the Christian faith has become the Valentine's Day we have today.

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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

What is the rarest blood type?

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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