Like all of our modern festivals, Valentine's Day can be traced back to our pagan traditions. In Roman times, the fertility festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in February - but was appropriated by Pope Gelasius I in the 5th Century and declared to be the feast of St. Valentine.
Geoffrey Chaucer is credited as being among the first to link the feast day with romance. In medieval France and England, it was believed that birds mated on February 14th, perhaps because the first birdsong after winter could be heard around this time.
In what is considered to be one of the first Valentine love poems, Chaucer appeals to the goddess of nature for the pairing of all birds, "for it was Valentine's day when every Fowl cometh to choose his mate". He is using birds as the symbol of lovers in his poem ' A parliament of fowls' - an image we are still familiar with today.
It was, naturellement, the French who widely popularised the idea of February 14th being a feast day for celebrating romantic love.
In 1415 the earliest surviving Valentine greeting was committed to paper. While imprisoned in the Tower of London following the battle of Agincourt, the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife, Bonne of Armagnac: 'Je suis desja d'amour tanne ma tres doulce Valentinee'. This translates roughly as 'I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine'. The oldest surviving Valentine's letter in the English language was sent in 1477 by Margery Brews to her fiance John Paston. It reads 'right well-beloved Valentine'. Both of these remarkable letters can be found in the British Library.
For a classic gift of love, a lady could bestow a favour. This was usually in the form of a sleeve known as a 'love sleeve'. It was the fashion for the sleeves on garments to be detachable, as these were the parts more likely to get soiled and would need to be laundered more frequently. A medieval Knight could often be seen in a tournament or going into battle carrying the sleeve of his beloved; thus the expression 'wearing your heart on your sleeve'. This very special gift was likely to be handmade by the wearer herself, in her family colours or embroidered with her own special symbol.
Embroidery was considered to be suitable way for ladies to spend their leisure, and a woman's needlework skills were a symbol of her status, piety, and diligence. A knight carrying a skillfully stitched sleeve would be seen as having a favourable beloved. Other handmade gifts could be a pillow, towel, handkerchief, or purse.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia says to Claudius: 'to-morrow is Saint Valentine's Day, all the morning bedtime and I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine'. This referred to the common superstition that the first woman a man saw on Valentine's day would be his true love.
By the middle of the 17th Century, Samuel Pepys wrote repeatedly of Valentine's in his diaries. By then Londoners of fine society were treating the belief as light-hearted fun rather than a quest for true love. In 1661 Pepys describes the choosing of a Valentine at a party, followed by early morning visits by the men to claim their Valentine, as 'very merry'. During the following days, gifts were bestowed as part of the merry-making. Pepys describes a shopping excursion a few days later with his wife, during which he makes the gift of several pairs of gloves, a very popular Valentine gift for ladies of the time.
However, it was in the 18th Century in a collection of nursery rhymes printed in 1784 that what remains our most popular Valentine poem can be found - 'The rose is red, the violet's blue, the honey is sweet, and so are you' - the origins of which can be found in Sir Edmund Spenser's 'The Fairie Queen', dating from 1590. It reads; 'she bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, and all the sweetest flowres, than the forrest grew'.
The earliest Valentine's cards in the 17th Century were handmade, with lace and ribbons, using the needlework skills that were still an indicator of marital suitability. These Valentine's cards featured some of the romantic imagery we are familiar with today, including flowers, love knots, and often lines of poetry in order to woo their lover. With the industrialisation of Victorian Britain and advances in printing technologies it became increasingly easy to mass-produce Valentine's cards, which soon became immensely popular. The introduction of the penny post brought convenience to the sending of Valentine's cards, leading to a ubiquitous convention by all of Victorian society by the end of the century.
Victorian Valentines tended to be elaborate, featuring a huge array of designs, lacework, embossing, and other intricacies, in addition to verses and sentiments that were popular with lovers of the day. Typically the imagery included flowers, Cupid, and lovebirds. Hearts were sometimes used - however, the familiar red heart was very rarely found on the Victorian valentine card.
The commercialisation of Valentine's day came in the mid-19th Century when the British tradition traveled across the Atlantic and American technologies meant that cards were produced cheaply, encouraging their popularity further, which changes this ancient tradition into the modern annual celebration of love and romance we celebrate today.