Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentine's Massacre

Today is Valentine's Day. SAINT Valentine's day if you want to give it it's full official title. I was told in school that St Valentine was a Roman soldier who was imprisoned for many years and wrote a love letter to his girlfriend/wife/horse every day (it was the olden days, details are sketchy), and that's why we give romantic messages or gifts on the day named in his honour.

This raised several questions, like; since when did they have a functional postal service in ancient Rome? Was it customary practice for the less-enlightened enemies of the empire to provide their prisoners with writing materials and generously deliver their letters for them? What was someone with the ability to read and write doing in a combat situation where they could get captured anyway? This suggests more of a noble background, they didn't do grunt work like that, surely? Maybe all of my arguments are valid, but it happened anyway? This would most likely count as the miracle required to achieve sainthood, so at least it's consistent in a way.

This is all academic anyway, seeing as my attempts to find this account of the origins of St Valentine's day drew precisely nothing. I can't find any mention of this bizarre origin story online. I suspect my rambling old headmaster accidentally picked up a Mills and Boon book instead of his prepared notes for the assembly where he told us about where Valentine's day originates, and as such I have this implausible anecdote lodged in my memory.

But any attempt to find out exactly where Valentine's day comes from is tricky. Just try it. St Valentine was a composite of 14 different people. Or 7. Or just the one. And he was a Roman nobleman. Or not. There are very little (if any) reliable records about who he was and what he did. He's essentially the 'Where's Wally' of saints. The festival in his name appears to have just come from nowhere.

That's often the way with well accepted themes and symbols though, their origins are either arbitrary, unknown or quite surreal, e.g. Father Christmas's red outfit being due to a Coca Cola advert. Some things are even more sinister though, like the supposed origin of the phrase 'Rule of Thumb'. Again, that's not so certain. It's believed to derive from a law that states men could beat their wife with a stick 'no thicker than their thumb'. However, this law never existed. 'Never base a cliché on domestic violence' would, ironically, be a good rule of thumb.

So where do all these Valentines symbols and themes come from? What does chocolate, love notes (later cards), flowers, cherubs, hearts, arrows, all that, where does all that come from? Again, the origins are nowhere near as twee and gushy as that.

The heart seems to take precedence as the organ that most represents Valentine's day. This is most likely due to the fact that the heart perceptibly changes it's activity in response to stimuli like arousal or anything involving hormone release. Arguably, there are certain other organs which noticeably respond to hormone release, and probably have a more direct link to romance, but society has deemed that these are not suitable for children to see, not even in cartoon form.

So where does all this symbolism come from? Well Valentine's day as a festival was, supposedly, introduced and emphasised to supplant pagan festivals with similar themes. A lot of pagan rituals have a fertility emphasis and so on, convert-hungry Christianity at the time would have noticed that offering chastity and discipline wouldn't have been much of a marketing strategy in getting people to sign up.

So you have this Christian ceremony of romance and passion, but presented within the paradoxically rigid framework of the religion which teaches self-discipline and that pre-marital anything is a sin. Religion in general has never had much of a problem with illogical teachings though, so this problem wasn't really of any concern.

Life when Valentine's day was introduced would have been largely based in rural communities, and this would have been the case for some time. The melting pots of cities are harder places to enforce strict religious dogma, but the traditional, rigid, land-based regions are much more amenable to discipline and hard work. Farming, woodland areas, that sort of thing, small communities ruled over by an fearsome preacher or pastor who whips them into a frenzy when it's time to go burn/drown a witch (depending on which country we're talking about).

Such places would take a very intolerant approach to youthful high jinks and deviance from the strict rules the Bible (or any religious text) demands. Fundamentalist areas are the same today, they just now usually have inconvenient 'laws' to stick to before dishing out the brutal punishments.

But if history has taught us anything, it's that horny teenagers can't be stopped by strict rules. If anything, that makes them worse. So in these strict religious communities, on St Valentine's day, when romance and passion were [technically] encouraged, teenagers who have been developing a mutual attraction to each other would arrange an illicit meet up in a secluded area, knowing there'd be dreadful punishment if they were caught. As being seen talking together would automatically arouse suspicion in communities where everyone knew everyone, they communicated via letters and notes, if they could write (hence the Valentine letter, later cards, tradition, and of course they had to be anonymous in case somebody else found them and they got into trouble).

If they couldn't read and write (which was more common) they had to leave a symbol, something romantic but easy to get hold of in rural communities, like flowers. The recipient would then look for the person carrying around the same type of flower, so they knew who had asked them for a 'hook up'.

Of course, fundamental religious communities don't look kindly on this sort of thing. Those teenagers that were caught mid-dalliance in the woods or other secluded areas, committing the cardinal sin of lust, were punished brutally. As the heart was believed to be the seat of emotions and behaviour, and these teenagers were guilt of a deadly sin, they were typically shot by crossbow through the heart, in front of everyone, in order to set an example, or to 'release the demons in them', or something like that. And so we get the image of an arrow through the heart.

Some wilier or well-off culprits were able to negotiate being spared their lives, if they made a substantial donation to the church and agreed to marry their partner immediately, hence the tradition of expensive gifts and proposals.

Of course, small communities with limited law enforcement authorities can't police the wide rural areas in an attempt to catch unruly teen lovers, so it was traditional to co-opt the local children who would go out exploring or playing. If they saw a couple up to 'no good', they could run back and tell the local magistrate or whoever, and they'd be caught and executed in the 'traditional' way. The child informants would be rewarded with sweetmeats and stuff, and so we have the tradition of giving chocolate on valentine's day, and also the image of the cherub, an innocent child shooting young lovers through the heart, seeing as many young kids actively went searching for courting couples to rat out, and essentially get them shot.

So there you have it, a rather grim and brutal story of intolerance, betrayal and death underpins all of our Valentine's traditions. It's essentially based on ritual massacre of young lovers. The 1929 Valentine's massacre was just keeping up the tradition.

You may be wondering why you've never heard any of this before. Is it some corporate or church cover up, to preserve the pleasant image of the annual event and keep people participating?

Or is it because I've just made the whole thing up? Because I have. Valentine's day symbolism is just a mish-mash of Greco-Roman mythology, symbols of fertility and a big helping of commercially manufactured elements. But my version sounds quite believable, doesn't it? So feel free to tell any sappy gits who keep banging on about the gushy, twee aspects of the holiday, perhaps making them think the whole thing is based on child informants and ritual execution might put them off finally?

The origins of Valentine's day are largely artificial constructs anyway, so there's no reason why we can't introduce some darker elements to the story, to try and offset the overly-saccharine elements of the holiday as it currently stands. Consider that my gift to you.

Happy Valentine's!


1 comment:

Old Rockin' Dave said...

The Romans did have a postal system. They built roads for two main reasons: to move troops quickly and to allow for a system of express riders to deliver messages. Otherwise, mail would sometimes be entrusted to a sailor or a traveler going the right way, who likely could expect a reward at the other end.
A soldier who could read and write would probably have been an officer from the upper classes and therefore likely to be imprisoned and held for ransom; a grunt would have gone to the mines if captured. It makes sense that he would be allowed to send letters home, so he could plead for them to hurry up with the dinars for the ransom.
I'm not saying the story is in any way true, just that there is some element of plausibility. You just have to read more Lindsey Davis and Ruth Downie.

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