“If you really love her, send her roses,” the advertisements proclaim. “Diamonds are forever.” “Say it with flowers.” Woman waits to receive, whereas man hunts an appropriate gift to present. The entire posits woman as object and man as subject. Worldly retailers may supply cards for those who do not identify within the heterosexist paradigm and those in unconventional relationships, but the current Valentine’s Day mostly celebrates the rigidly traditional relationship.
Valentine’s Day is an odd day to celebrate in general, though.
The saints that have been named Valentine have no connection to romantic love. The majority were martyred during the early Christian period. The origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love are obscure. In my opinion, there are two paradigms with regard to Valentine’s Day.
The first is that of romantic love which first appeared in Parlement of Foules by Chaucer, which celebrated the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Given that Chaucer served the king as a customs official and diplomat, it is possible that the links between Valentine’s Day and romantic love may have been a nod to his patron. Anne of Bohemia is known to have travelled extensively with King Richard, which might be an indicator of a strong bond between the couple, as it was unusual behaviour at the time.
The tradition of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love seems to have been well established during the mediaeval period. In Act IV, Scene 5 of Hamlet, Ophelia refers to being a Valentine
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
It is a common thread throughout many works of courtly love and poetry and Keats, Marlowe and others used the connection in their poetry.
The traditional sending of cards flourished during the seventeenth century. Books of verse were written for those who had trouble composing their own. By the nineteenth century, Valentine’s cards were being mass produced in factories much like they are now.
The second Valentine’s Day paradigm is one of violence against women. This paradigm appears with the Roman festival of Lupercalia, although it may have older, Greek origins. It is commonly held is the view that Valentine’s Day was an attempt to Christianise the Lupercalia, a festival to celebrate the return of spring through blood and sacrifice which harkened to the founding of Rome.
Men, anointed with the blood of the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog would run in the streets brandishing whips. Women and girls lined up to receive cuts. Plutarch in The Parallel Lives gives the reasons why:
At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire.
This is the first of the links of Valentine’s to violence against women. While Roman matrons had more freedom than their Greek counterparts, there is no information on their freedom to participate in this ritual.
In Act I, Scene II of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony is ordered by Caesar to hit his wife.
CAESAR (to Calpurnia)
Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
Caesar, my lord?
Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
While Shakespeare was writing centuries after the end of the Lupercalia, he still has Calpurnia struck by order of Caesar rather than noting her choice to participate.
In 1400 a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris on Valentine’s Day. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women:
It was organised in a non-hierarchical manner and the judges were selected by women after reciting poetry. Judgments were made collectively. The subject matter of the Courts of Love included contracts of love, remedies for amorous betrayal, deceit and slander of lovers, responsibilities of separated lovers and punishment of violence against women. Further, [Peter] Goodrich argues that the courts often considered disputes between women lovers and between male lovers. [source]
Continuing in the tradition of linking Valentine’s Day to violence against women, in 1998 Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monlogues was used as a seminal piece to found V-Day. V-Day is:
a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations. V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual slavery.
This is achieved through public campaigns, performances and sponsorship and raises money to fight violence against girls and women. Although it is not related to the High Court of the middle ages or the Luprecalia, it nevertheless follows in the tradition of campaigning for the right of women to live free from violence.
These two paradigms are located in the same history but are diametrically opposed. Whether the holiday has its origins in a pagan festival of cruelty, martyred early Christians or appeasing a patron of the arts, we must still recognise that we are where we are. Valentine’s Day and V-Day are side by side and celebrated on 14 February. One lauds the ideals of capitalism and tokenism; the other campaigns for a better future for a girls and women.
It is possible to participate in both, but with a clear eye towards the past and the future. It is also worth remembering, especially in recessionary times that supporting a cause does not require a donation and that love need not be expressed through purchases. In fact, it probably means more to not buy your way through the day.