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valentines book at the athenaeum

9th January 2019

It’s appropriate that early versions of Valentine’s Day started in Rome, one of Italy’s most romantic cities. However, in Ancient Rome, it was the Lupercalia festival – a pagan celebration of fertility – that was celebrated between 13 and 15 February.

The centuries that followed saw a couple of religious figures called Valentine martyred around the same time of year – an occasion that was marked on 14 February every year as St Valentine’s Day. Over time, the purpose of Lupercalia and St Valentine’s Day became mixed up, and Valentine’s Day became a decidedly romantic occasion.

Rome

The idea of a day dedicated to love on 14 February became cemented over the centuries. In the 1300s, Chaucer wrote about birds choosing mates on Valentine’s Day. In the 1400s, Charles VI of France established a High Court of Love in Paris on Valentine’s Day, to help resolve disputes between lovers and other affairs of the heart. And closer to home in London, Charles Duke of Orleans wrote the first recorded Valentine’s letter to his lover while imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415.

From the mid-1800s, exchanging letters and cards for Valentine’s Day became the norm, and the Valentine’s Day we recognise today took off. In 1840, the Uniform Penny Post was launched in the UK, meaning Valentine’s cards could be posted by the Victorians for just a penny. So many cards were sent that postmen were allowed extra refreshments during this time of year, due to the extra effort required to get all the cards delivered! By 1871, an astounding 1.2 million cards were processed by the General Post Office in London alone.

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