"Will you be my Valentine?" A simple request made by millions around the world on Feb. 14 every year along with chocolates, cards, candies, and flowers. But the history of the real Saint Valentine, who lived during the Roman Empire, is less romantic than the celebration of love that bears his name.
For one thing, Saint Valentine was beaten and beheaded -- not beloved -- for his faith.
The Catholic Church lists him as the patron saint of many things, including love, greeting card manufacturers, betrothed couples, and happy marriages. He is represented by roses, birds, and a bishop performing a wedding, among other things. St. Valentine is also venerated in the Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches.
Lisa Bitel, a University of Southern California historian of Christianity, helped sort through some of the facts and folklore surrounding the so-called patron saint of love in an article for the Associated Press.
There were multiple people named St. Valentine who died on Feb. 14., according to ancient sources. Two of them were executed at a time when Christian persecution was commonplace, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269-270 A.D. But there was more than likely just one whose true identity became confused between two cities, Rome and Terni, according to the Bollandists, an order of Belgian monks who collected information about different saints.
"Indeed, medieval legends, repeated in modern media, had St. Valentine performing Christian marriage rituals or passing notes between Christian lovers jailed by Gothicus. Still, other stories romantically involved him with the blind girl whom he allegedly healed. Yet, none of these medieval tales had any basis in third-century history, as the Bollandists pointed out," Bitel writes. "In any case, historical veracity did not count for much with medieval Christians. What they cared about were stories of miracles and martyrdoms and the physical remains or relics of the saint."
For example, Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome displays a whole skull and other churches across Europe also claim to own slivers and bits of Valentine's bones as a sign that the saint's continued presence is helping believers. One bishop reportedly used Valentine's head to put out fires, prevent epidemics, and cure diseases.
In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day. Bitel noted that while many suggest Valentine's Day is a Christian cover-up of an ancient Roman holiday, the day most likely does not have pagan roots.
The love connection, however, most likely appeared a thousand years later, according to Bitel. She notes "The Canterbury Tales" author Geoffrey Chaucer talked about lovebirds and sending notes on Valentine's Day. Then years later, the French Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife in February, referring to her as his "very gentle Valentine." Shakespeare's Ophelia spoke of herself as Hamlet's Valentine.
Fast forward and over the years, the Industrial Revolution made it easier to mass-produce cards, candy, and carnations that make the request: "Will you be my Valentine?" all that easier. And, as Bitel notes, beheading is not required.
"And much like love itself, St. Valentine and his reputation as the patron saint of love are not matters of verifiable history," Bitel said. "But of faith."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.