St. Valentine's Day: 5th Century Rome "...The Catholic Church's attempt to paper over a popular pagan fertility rite with the clubbing death and decapitation of one of its own martyrs is the origin of this lovers' holiday.
As early as the fourth century B.C., the Romans engaged in an annual young man's rite of passage to the god Lupercus. The names of teenage women were placed in a box and drawn at random by adolescent men; thus, a man was assigned a woman companion, for their mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual), for the duration of a year, after which another lottery was staged.
Determined to put an end to this eight-hundred-year-old practice, the early church fathers sought a "lovers'' saint to replace the deity Lupercus. They found a likely candidate in Valentine, a bishop who had been martyred some two hundred years earlier. In Rome in A.D. 270, Valentine had enraged the mad emperor the mad emperor Claudius II, who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Claudius felt that married men made poor soldiers, because they were loath to leave their families for battle. The empire needed soldiers, so Claudius, never one to fear unpopularity, abolished marriage.
Valentine, bishop of Interamna, invited young lovers to come to him in secret, where he joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. Claudius learned of this "friend of lovers," and had the bishop brought to the palace. The emperor, impressed with the young priest's dignity and conviction, attempted to convert him to the Roman gods, to save him from otherwise certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity and imprudently attempted to convert the emperor. On February 24, 270, Valentine was clubbed, stoned, then beheaded.
History also claims that while Valentine was in prison awaiting execution, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Through his unswerving faith, he miraculously restored her sight. He signed a farewell message to her "From Your Valentine," a phrase that would live long after its author died.
From the Church's standpoint, Valentine seemed to be the ideal candidate to usurp the popularity of Lupercus. So in A.D. 496, a stern Pope Gelasius outlawed the mid-February Lupercian festival. But he was clever enough to retain the lottery, aware of Romans' love for games of chance. Now into the box that had once held the names of available and willing single women were placed the names of saints. Both men and women extracted slips of paper, and in the ensuing year they were expected to emulate the life of the saint whose name they had drawn. Admittedly, it was a different game, with different incentives; to expect a woman and draw a saint must have disappointed many a Roman male. The spiritual overseer of the entire affair was its patron saint, Valentine. With reluctance, and the passage of time, more and more Romans relinquished their pagan festival and replaced it with the Church's holy day.
Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Occleve (1412)
Medieval period and the English Renaissance
Using the language of the law courts for the rituals of courtly love, a "High Court of Love" was established in Paris on Valentine's Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading. The earliest surviving valentine is a fifteenth-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his "valentined" wife, which commences.
Je suis desja d'amour tanne
Ma tres doulce Valentine
-Charles d'Orleans ,Rondeau VI, lines 1-2
At the time, the duke was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
Valentine's Day is mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600-1601):
To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
William Shakespeare , Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5