Vintage view: Victorian valentine cards

Kya deLongchamps looks at the ancient roots and courtly early expressions of St Valentine’s Day.

Victorian valentine cards on lace with embroidery and applied flowers or bows are widely collected today

The sugar plastered, commercial binge-fest of hearts and flowers begins again. As we meekly dart the focus of our affection with a stiff red envelope, the real St Valentine remains a mysterious figure.

First of all, because of the political push-pull of early Christian politics and the powerful influence of hagiography (written saint’s lives), there are three men who may or may not have been our man.

For the same reason, there are three possible St. Patricks, still put forward as a theory by revisionist Irish historians. One, probably real person would do something wonderful in the name of the early Christian church.

A century or two later, another real person of the same name might do something equally wonderful or might have been murdered in a particularly egregious, juicy fashion.

For the sake of perking-up the propaganda surrounding their deed or to increase the prestige of a native city or religious order in the Middle Ages, the two characters would be synthesised into one.

They would be further slathered in a few miracles, the life scratched out on vellum in a biography of a single martyred saint.

Valentine or more properly in Latin — Valentinus, was a popular and well muscled name meaning ‘worthy, strong, powerful’.

The Roman Catholic Church remembers a grand total of 11 St Valentines who acted out wondrous, holy, brave daring-do.

The first St Valentine of Terni (Italy) turns up in the written records in the 5th century and has the most favoured story for our patron saint of courtly love.

In the third Century AD, Valentine, an outspoken, devoted priest, attracted the attention of a provincial judge and later the local Roman prefect in Terni (the Romans were always on the lookout for troublemakers who might prove lightening rods in the local communities).

After repeated misbehaviour, he was finally sent to Rome and jailed for the crime of proselytizing in the name of Christ.

He must have been a personable engaging man as despite his perilous position, this Valentine somehow became relatively pally with Emperor Claudius Gothicus (not the one of ‘I Claudius’ fame, but Claudius II).

This unlikely bromance swiftly fell apart when Valentine suggesting the emperor might like to give up his polytheism, pop down to the Tiber for an immersion, and follow Jesus Christ for eternity.

Not a man to be gainsaid, Claudius proscribed that the priest be beaten with clubs— sheer entertainment for the watching crowd — and then beheaded. It was, it is said, the 14th of February, 269AD.

After that, Valentine, if this is indeed our man, recedes into a romantic haze of later storytelling. 

Father of modern literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, who you might remember from reading The Canterbury Tales at school, mentioned a St. Valentine’s Day falling sometime in the Spring, in the 1370s.

Somewhere over the course of a thousand years, the twinning of Valentine and romantic love had emerged. 

In the 15th century in a German hagiography, it states that Valentine had died at the Flaminian Gate, for marrying young soldiers to their sweethearts while in prison in Rome.

This was not simply annoying for his captors, it infuriated the Emperor who could not then send these men to war. Here is our link in fiction if not in fact, and the beginning of the secular celebration of St Valentine’s Day today.

The loathsome Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), not Hallmark Cards came up with the jaded ditty — ‘The rose is red, the violet’s blue, The honey’s sweet and so are you’ — etc and so on in his epic poem, The Faerie Queene (1590).

The work was influenced in part by his time here in Ireland as secretary to Lord Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland, although he was far from amorous in his attitudes to the Irish.

We all love to love, and by the 18th century St. Valentine’s Day was set as a time of flowers, cupid encrusted notes and (most importantly) edible sweeties as tribute to a female.

Young men were expected to make things up in the early 1700s (you can only imagine the inward struggle and balled paper).

‘Chapbooks’ or writing aids, were available for all ranks to help dumbstruck Romeos shine in verse. The Tower Project at the Cambridge University Library turned up this suggested ode from an 18th century fishmonger.

“Thy skin is a whiting, thy eyes, As bright as the scales of my fish, My turtle, my sole, thee I prize, Accede then, I pray to my wish.” Who could resist? She could return the following cruel verse if she didn’t fancy a life behind the counter:

“Sir, as a flounder, I am flat, And have been so through all my life, So flatly tell you – worthless sprat, I never will become your wife.”

The Georgians also enjoyed giggling gatherings to ‘draw names’ out of a hat or vessel to select their potential recipient. If you were bold enough, you could make a heart shaped piece of paper declaring your beau’s name and ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’.

Sentimental ready-printed cards edged in lace and beautifully illustrated appeared in the early 19th century. 

These Victorian cards using paper embossing, applied flowers and puzzles are widely collected and still exquisite with feeling.

If you are lucky enough to find an early Valentine card, keep this and any ephemera out of the light.and in acid free paper and boxes or you will break my heart..



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