Laura's Blog

Valentine's Day During the Renaissance

- by Laura Malone Elliott

February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine’s Day! I am a big proponent of using this day to celebrate all kinds of love—for our family, friends, and yes, significant others.

I found myself wondering this weekend what Valentine’s Day might have looked like during Ginevra’s time, so I took it upon myself to find out!

No one is entirely certain why the February 14th feast day of Saint Valentine became associated with romance, although there are many theories. One theory is that during the Middle Ages, February 14th was believed to be the date on which birds chose their mates (mentioned by both Chaucer and Shakespeare). Others believe it harkens back to the Roman Lupercalia festival—a rather wild day of festivities.

During Ginevra’s time, a tradition of drawing names was revived (this one does seem to specifically come from Lupercalia)—boys and girls would draw names, and were then supposed to devote themselves to the person they drew for the day. If a boy and a girl mutually drew each other’s names, that was considered an omen that they would marry. There was also a belief that the first person of the opposite sex you saw on Valentine’s Day would become your valentine (excluding family members!) There was also a game in which you would throw seeds over your left shoulder into a bowl filled with water—the shape the seeds made indicated your fortune.

No matter how you picked your Valentine day partner, you were expected to present him or her with a token: a piece of jewelry, gloves, sweets, or something shaped like a heart or the Valentine partner’s initial. Men often gave their ladies a heart-shaped emblem she could wear on her sleeve—which is where we got the colloquialism “wearing your heart on your sleeve.”

On Valentine’s Day, these games often accompanied a feast. Often the feast would include eaten seed-laden fruit (figs, apples, or pomegranates), which represented fertility. Herbs were crushed into bowls of rosewater to create sweet fragrance in the dining room. Sometimes men would make “love lanterns” for their ladies by hollowing out turnips and placing a candle inside—almost like a miniature version of a Jack o’Lantern. And the most popular drinking toast was “Amor Vincit Omnia” or “Love Conquers All.”

Sounds like a pretty good way to spend the day to me! Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers!


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