When we think of Valentine’s Day our minds probably jump to heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and the scores of red and pink cards that line the shelves in our local supermarket. But a lot of our modern Valentine’s Day traditions are exactly that: modern. Or at least Victorian. But can their origins be traced back even further? Did Valentine’s Day exist in Shakespeare’s day, and if so, how did people celebrate it?
The origins of Valentine’s Day are hard to pinpoint exactly but are thought to date back to ancient Rome. Saint Valentine (who may in fact be based on two or even three individuals called Valentine) was martyred on the 14 February 269 AD by Emperor Claudius Gothicus for curing a woman of blindness and then converting her whole family to Christianity. Legend has it that while he was imprisoned before his execution, he wrote to the girl who he had cured of blindness. He signed the letter “from your Valentine” and this may be the original inspiration behind our tradition of sending love letters for Valentine’s Day.
However, it seems that Saint Valentine’s Day did not have a particular association with love until the medieval period. It wasn’t until Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, wrote about Valentine’s Day in his Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls) in the late 14th century that connections with love were beginning to be made. He wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day. When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.)
This link between birds choosing their mate on Valentine’s Day soon became entrenched in traditional folklore, so much so that Shakespeare even alludes to it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Towards the end of the play, Theseus the Duke of Athens stumbles upon the four sleeping lovers and compares them to mating birds by saying: “Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past. Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?” (Midsummer Night's Dream, Act IV, scene 1)
Although Valentine’s Day is referred to by many writers of the day, including Shakespeare, there is little surviving evidence about how people actually celebrated it in the medieval and Tudor periods. One clue can be found among the Paston letters (1422-1509) which are a collection of correspondence from and to the Paston family who were members of the Norfolk gentry. One of these surviving letters dating from 1470 mentions Valentines being chosen by lot from amongst a group of friends who then bought their valentine a gift (similar to our modern day Secret Santa!).
It seems this tradition continued through to the 16th and even 17th centuries. The steward’s accounts of Secretary of State Sir William Petre (c. 1505-1572) show that he gave lengths of gold cloth and gold trinkets to his allotted valentine. It seems that even the servants were included in this valentine tradition in his household, as one year Sir William drew one of the maids by lot and gave her a quarter’s extra wages as her valentine gift.
A bit later in the early 17th century Michael Drayton, a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, wrote about the custom of drawing valentines by lot in His Poem to His Valentine (1619):
Let's laugh at them that choose
Their valentines by lot.
To wear their names that use,
Whom idly they have got;
Such poor choice we refuse,
Saint Valentine befriend;
We thus this morn may spend,
Else, Muse, awake her not.
Sir William Petre’s accounts give us some examples as to the sort of present that may qualify as a 16th century love token, but further clues can be found in Shakespeare’s own work. Although not specifically mentioning Valentine’s Day, in The Winter’s Tale the mischievous pedlar and conman Autolycus lists items he has for sale that a man may wish to buy his lady love:
Lawn as white as driven snow;
Cyprus black as e’er was crow;
Gloves as sweet as damask roses;
Masks for faces and for noses;
Bugle bracelet, necklace amber,
Perfume for a lady’s chamber;
Golden quoifs and stomachers,
For my lads to give their dears;
Pins and poking-sticks of steel,
What maids lack from head to heel;
Come buy of me, come; come buy, come buy;
Buy lads, or else your lasses cry;
It is impossible to know whether the custom of drawing valentines by lot was tradition at all levels of society or simply for the wealthy; it is hardly mentioned in surviving documentation of the day. However, due to the expense of gift-giving it can be assumed that it was a pursuit of the rich who could afford to bestow such lavish gifts on their valentines.
The rich may have also sent each other valentine’s letters. The oldest surviving valentine’s letter is attributed to Charles the Duke of Orléans dated 1415. The French nobleman was captured at the Battle of Agincourt and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 25 years. During this time he wrote many love letters and poems to his wife, including one which refers to her as his “Valentinée”. Translated from the original French it reads:
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
A valentine’s letter also features in the Paston letters. Margery Brews wrote to John Paston in February 1477 and refers to him as her “right welbelouyd Voluntyn”.
Letter writing, particularly for pleasure, was more of a pursuit of the rich and middle classes. Parchment and ink were expensive, and one had to be literate. Although many people of the lower orders could read, writing was considered a completely separate skill entirely, hence why many signed their names with an “X” on legal documents of the day.
Although they may not have been writing letters, did ordinary folk celebrate Valentine’s Day in any other way? Unfortunately for us we simply do not know. The fact that it is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work a few times suggests that it was at least something that ordinary people would have been aware of, for as we know, Shakespeare’s plays were written to be accessible to people of all backgrounds, not just the rich. The popular folklore of the time regarding birds choosing their mate on Valentine’s Day may also suggest that it was part of the common consciousness at the time.
Nevertheless, it seems we have Tudor society to thank for embedding the Valentine’s traditions of gift-giving and letter-writing in their culture which has even survived through to the modern day. So if you decide to pen a romantic letter to a loved one this Valentine’s Day, why look any further than Shakespeare himself for inspiration? After all, the Bard had quite a lot to say on the subject of love.
Romeo: Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene 5)
Glossary of terms
Lawn - linen.
Cyprus - crepe, a material often used for mourning clothes in the 15th-17th centuries. It was made in Cyprus.
Bugle bracelet - a bracelet made from tube or bugle shaped beads.
Quoif - or coif, a woman’s close fitting cap.
Stomacher - the triangular front panel of a dress, often highly decorated.
Pins and poking-sticks of steel - hair, hat or dress pins.
Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England (The History Press, 2011)
Norman Davis, The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2001)