Romance the Medieval Way: St Valentine’s Day Special

by Dr Ruth Salter

St Valentine at Terni

Saint Valentine of Terni oversees the construction of the basilica at Terni. This image comes from a fourteenth-century French manuscript, now Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. 185, f.210r


St Valentine and the (possible) origins of Valentine’s Day

Two St Valentines are listed in the Roman Martyrology for February 14th: one was a martyred Roman priest who had supposedly been killed on the Flaminian Way during Claudius’ reign (AD 41-54); the other was the Bishop of Terni, who had been martyred in Rome but whose relics had been translated (returned) to Terni. It is possible, however, that these two Valentines were the same person.

What is strange though is that, when we look at the little known about Valentine, there is nothing to connect this early Christian priest to lovers and romance. This is because the connection is made not through people but through animals. February 14th came to be thought of as the day that birds paired for the Spring. The first documentation of this being Geoffrey Chaucer’s (d.1400) Parlement of Foules, which was written to celebrate the first anniversary of Richard II of England’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia (1382):

For this was on seynt Volentynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

Elements of Valentine’s Day might also indicate the survival of older, pagan customs of the Roman Lupercalia festivals which took place in the middle of February. Lupercalia was one of the oldest Roman festivals; in fact its roots are possibly pre-Roman. The festival was one of purification – evil spirits were cleansed from the city, and this released health and fertility. Plutarch (d. c. AD 127) commented that:

many write that it [Lupercalia] was anciently celebrated by shepherds… At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

The Lupercalian Festival in Rome, drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer (c.1578–1610). Here the luperci (the men involved in the procession) are dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility


That Valentine’s Day, and mid-February, should have become symbolic of romance, and more specifically fertility and mating, is not surprising. This is, after all, traditionally the period when the signs of the winter are starting to be replaced by those of spring – this year being a bit of an exception to that. Changes in flora and fauna, and the noticeable lengthening of day-light hours, are all indicative of this shift.

However, romance – and attempts to encourage romantic behaviour – was not solely the preserve of St Valentine’s Day alone. In fact during the Middle Ages there were a number of unusual methods to encourage both love and lust.


To encourage romance:

Blood: As early as the eight-century women were seen to be interested in encouraging and increasing love. In fact Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury’s (d.690) Penitential assigns penance to those women who drink men’s blood as a way to improve their relationships.

Abarquid: Abarquid is the name of a stone in the ‘lapidario’ produced in thirteenth-century Castille for the future King Alfonso X of Seville and Leon. This lapidarial text offers a potentially useful tip for any desperate men:

On the stone called Abarquid… It is found in Africa, in the sulphur mines. It is light and hard to break. And on the outside its colour is green with some yellow. It is flat in shape, and when men observe it carefully, it appears to have the form of a scorpion. If it is broken, the same scorpion shape is found inside… If a woman carries it, its power will make her so lust for a man that she will restrain herself only by a great effort of will, and it has the same effect on any female animal.

Wolves: A number of bestiaries, including the Aberdeen Bestiary (image below), provide a useful hint when it comes to romance that: ‘on the tail of this animal [the wolf] there is a tiny patch of hair which is a love-charm’. Wolves were said to be aware of this and so, when faced with capture, they would tear out this piece of fur (which would then lose its potency).

Wolf, Aberdeen Bestiary

Miniature to accompany ‘The Wolf’ in the Aberdeen Bestiary, Aberdeen University Library ms.24 f.16v


Mandrake: The most powerful of all ‘love charms’ were those made from the mandrake owing to the fact that the roots were shaped like the human body. The power of the mandrake was noted as early as the Book of Genesis and the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, and in medical works that form the Ancient Greek Hippocratic Corpus. This was enforced in Dioscorides’ Herbal in which he noted the relationship between these plants and love and sexual activity. Theophratus was the first, however, to suggest that using the root in a special ritual would lead to acquiring its power. This ritual involved using a sword of ‘virgin iron’ to draw circles around the plant, then using an ivory rod to loosen it, before finally using the sword to cut the mandrake whilst reciting special incantations about love. In later versions of this charm it was stated that all of this was to be practised at night – but the mandrake would be visible owing to the fact it would glow with an eerie light.

Mandrake, Apuleius Herbarium


Mandrakes being picked in an edition of Apuleius’ Herbarium, Lombardy c.1400, now Yale Medical Library ms.18, f.49v


To cure lust:

But what if the problem is actually too much lust? Well Hildegard of Bingen, the German abbess and mystic, suggests a number of ‘cures’ in her Physica including:

Dill… in order for a man to extinguish the pleasure and lust of the flesh which is in him, he should, in summer, take dill, and twice as much water mint, and a little more tithymal, and the root of Illyrian iris. He should put these in vinegar, and make a condiment from them, and frequently eat it with all his foods. In winter he should pulverise these and chew the powder with his foods, since at that time he cannot obtain the fresh herbs with their vital energy.


Sparrow hawk… A man or a woman who burns with lust should take a sparrow hawk and, when it is dead, remove the feathers and throw away the head and viscera. He should place the rest of its body, without water, in a new clay pot perforated with a small hole, and heat it over the fire. Under this pot he should place another new clay pot, and catch the fat that flows off. He should then crush calandria and less camphor and mix them with the fat. He should heat this again, moderately, on the fire, and make an unguent. The man should anoint his privy member and loins with it for five days. In a month the ardour of his lust will cease, with no danger to his body. The woman should anoint herself around the umbilicus, and in the opening of the belly button. Her ardour will cease within a month. When the month is finished, the person, man or woman, should oil himself – or herself, and thus have relief from lust.

 Of course, it goes without says *don’t try any of these at home* but I think it’s safe to say that either of Hildegard’s above cures would certainly dampen romance and lust!



Cited in order of appearance:
Farmer, D. H., ‘Valentine’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford University Press, 2011), via <;.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlement of Foulys, ed. Brewer, D. S. (Manchester University Press, 1972), at ll.309-10
Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar in Fall of the Roman Republic. Six lives: Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, trans. Warner, R. (Penguin. 1972), at The Life of Julius Caesar chp.16.
Theodore of Tarsus, Pœnitentiale Theodori in eds. Haddan, A. and Stubbs, W., Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol.3. (Clarendon Press, 1869) pp.173-213, at p.188
Lawrence-Mathers, A. and Escobar-Vargas, C., Magic and Medieval Society (Routledge, 2014) at p.114
Aberdeen University Library ms.24 []
Hildegard of Bingen, Physica in trans. Throop, P., Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing (Healing Arts Press, 1998), at pp.41-2, pp.187-8
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