Since this week celebrates ‘St Valentine’s Day’ I thought that might be a good place for Lions and Lilies to start a blog.
As with many events in the medieval world, there is no one clear answer as to its origin but rather several events, melted together like Valentine’s Day chocolate in Australia, which seem to provide us with some background to our modern-day concept.
First, I shall address the man, himself – ‘Valentinus’ and there are (at least) two possible contenders behind this name, a Roman priest and a Bishop from Terni. The most favoured candidate is the Roman priest. He is said to have assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II. Valentinus was apprehended but when he tried to convert the Emperor, he was condemned to death. Since he would not renounce his faith, he was beaten with clubs, stoned and then beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate, close to the Milvian bridge in Rome (c 269). It was February 14. One legend suggests that while he was awaiting execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. On the eve before his death, he penned a farewell note to her, signing it ‘from your Valentine.’
Combine that with a belief that birds chose their life-long mates on February 14th (or with equal superstition, if herons did not return to nest in a certain area by February 14 it would be bad luck), coupled with a Roman festival ‘Lupercalia,’ celebrated mid-February, where during the feast a game was played in which couples were chosen by lot, and you have the beginnings of the custom. St Valentine’s Day as a ‘Festival for Lovers’ dates back to at least the fourteenth century, for Geoffrey Chaucer knew of it.
We also know that in the medieval age, they lived hard and they feasted even harder! Celebrants expected to be in the mood for love. The tables in the halls were decorated with small bowls of rosewater containing crushed herbs such as rosemary, basil, marjoram, yarrow and bay leaves. You could smell the freshness in the air! Love lanterns – hollowed out turnips (or similar firm vegetable) carved with a smiling face, each with a burning candle set within, glowed from between the ivy. The high table also boasted an incense burner smelling of sweet laurel and pine. Each guest wore at least one love-knot jewellery piece over their heart or at the neckline, in the shape of a number 8 resting on its side – the symbol for eternity. But my favourite is the love sleeves!
Medieval garments developed detachable sleeves. It allowed more frequent laundering of the part most likely to be soiled by spills or sweat. On Valentine’s Day, lovers took to swapping sleeves, announcing their choice to the world and giving way to the expression ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve.’ But there was also a literal meaning. A red heart cut from fabric was sewn or pinned onto their garments, usually the sleeve, the wearer declaring their devotion to love, either for a particular person, the Saint of Love or even just the ideals of love.
At any other feast, guests would expect their own trencher – a piece of thick, baked bread acting as a plate, but at the ‘Lovers Feast’ there was only one golden trencher (tinted and spiced with saffron) between every two seats for couples to share. For the duration of the feast ‘lots’ would be drawn to see who was your nonce lover. Married or not, you sat next to your drawn lot, your lover for the night!
Plum Shuttles were a delicate feast fare. These finger-length long, oval, red and purple cakes were made with plums, currants and caraway seeds. They resembled the shuttles that weavers used to guide the threads through the warp and weft of cloth. It was to signify the ‘weaving of love’ into the ‘fabric of life.’ Then there were the heart-shaped cakes made with a red fruit, such as cherries and pomegranates. These celebrated a ‘heartfelt’ feeling and the abundantly seedy fruits were considered important foods of love.
In times of uncertainty and since love was not a part of the marriage bargain, many a young maiden, falling under the spell of a handsome man, would seek answers. In dark corners, away from prying eyes, possessors of such powers would provide an answer for a coin across the palm. One such method was the art of ‘Divination’ and because lives in the medieval age were lived around the seasons of nature, it was thought that nature itself, held most of the answers. When it came to questions of love, a Midsummer rose was picked and examined, petal by petal. But, true to the balance of nature, each petal revealed an opposite answer. Only the last petal plucked could reveal the truth. And there you have it – ‘he loves me, he loves me not!’