Valentine’s Day: a time of year surrounded by expectation and charged with anticipation – or for many, something more like trepidation. Not surprising really, given the overwhelming task of squeezing the measure of a relationship into a single day, a gift, or a few carefully composed words that always seem to fall just a little shy of the mark, teetering precariously on the brink of cliché.
So where did it all begin?
Far from the floral onslaught of windows awash with shades of pink.
In fact, romance originally had very little to do with it at all. Think Pagan rituals, animal sacrifices and (consensual) flagellation.
Every year between the 13th and 15th of February, the ancient Romans used to hold a festival called Lupercalia, which saw naked young noblemen presiding over the ritual sacrifice of a goat. The hides were then used to whip young women as the procession passed through the city, a practice that was believed to enhance fertility. Fifty shades of passé, as history would have it.
Then, in around 270 AD, a man called Valentine arrived to rock the boat with his religion and newfangled notions of monogamy. History has shrouded some of his life in mystery – some believe he was a priest, others claim he was a doctor – but it was his Christianity that ultimately got him into trouble. At the time, emperor Claudius II persecuted followers of the Christian faith and banished young men from marrying, as he thought it would hamper their performance as soldiers. Valentine refused to give up his beliefs and continued to secretly conduct marriage ceremonies for young lovers. He was eventually discovered and sentenced to death.
During his imprisonment, he befriended his jailor’s daughter Julia, and (whether by miracle or medicine) is said to have cured her blindness. Before his execution on the 14th of February, he left her a written farewell, signed ‘from your Valentine’.
This 1940s personalised Mignon diary was discovered in the Smythson archives among a collection of Valentine’s cards and gifts. A coincidence perhaps, but we thought it fitting that its cover was gold-stamped with the name of the girl who gave rise to the celebration of Valentine’s Day.
It was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer who first brought romantic love into the equation. His 1382 poem Parlement of Foules is the earliest recorded text to make a direct reference to Valentine’s Day:
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 here to choose his mate
Smythson Valentine’s card from 1903: ‘A sign of love’. Frank used the image of the swan, famous for its monogamous mating habits, as a clever play on words. ‘Signe’ (sign) and ‘cygne’ (swan) bear the same pronunciation in French. This is one of the earliest cards in the Smythson archives.
The image of the love birds has since become an iconic symbol of love, universally associated with Valentine’s day.
The oldest surviving Valentine’s card in existence dates back to 1415 and can be found on display in the British Library. It was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the battle of Agincourt. The poem begins:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée
I am already sick with love,
My very gentle Valentine
These Smythson Valentine’s cards are a beautiful example of the time-honoured craftsmanship that still goes into the creation of our stationery today. Dating from 1905 to 1912, each piece boasts intricate techniques including plate-marking, embossing and diestamping. Visit the Valentine’s archive exhibitions in our New Bond Street and Sloane Street stores to see them first-hand in all their exquisite detail.
Nothing like a colourful cocktail of Pagans, prisons and poetry to bring a fresh perspective to the occasion – but if you prefer a little less carnage and a bit more vintage with your Valentine, then perhaps the Smythson Valentine’s Day exhibition might provide some inspiration.