In search of St Valentine
IF EVER THERE was a case of a man’s sum being greater than his parts, it must be Saint Valentine; or is it more a case of the parts being all over the place? As the British greetings card industry pockets an annual £47.2 million spent on Valentine cards, confectioners, jewellers and balloon vendors go into overdrive and postmen deliver hernia-inducing loads of envelopes scrawled with silly rhymes, attempts to flesh out the saint of hearts and flowers can prove frustratingly ineffectual.
For the moment, however, I’m standing in the atrium of the Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in Glasgow - self-styled "City of Love", for this week at least - and contemplating a wood and brass reliquary casket bearing the words Corpus St Valentini Martyris. The saint’s remains, or some of them, are interred here in the Gorbals, an area not widely associated with romance, having been transferred to the 1960s-built church in 1999, when the local Franciscan community moved from the older St Francis’s church round the corner. The enshrining of the remains at their new home - on St Valentine’s Day, 1999 - prompted Glasgow to launch its "City of Love" festival which is currently in full, gleeful swing, with a programme of events of a generally romantic if largely non-ecclesiastical bent, from candle-lit cabarets to jazz concerts and saucy burlesque.
"He tends to be celebrated today through commercial interest rather than through any great devotion," observes Father Patrick Lonsdale, one of the handful of Franciscan friars based at Blessed John Duns Scotus. But which St Valentine are we talking about? For the lovers’ friend and postman’s bane remains a shadowy figure, as elusive as Harry Lime and, as any hagiography will tell you, there is more than one of him.
Father Patrick is affably vague about the relic or relics, and one gets the impression he regards the annual if fleeting celebrity status bestowed on the saint in the box as something of a distraction from his usual round of prayer, preaching and pastoral work. As we sift through documentation pertaining to the saint in his office, it emerges that nobody seems very clear as to which Valentine’s remains Glasgow can lay claim to, or indeed which particular bits of the man are housed in that reliquary.
Is he the same Valentine, for instance, whose mortal remains are also boasted by Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, whose Carmelite community also lays claim to the saint, though not all of him? "I wouldn’t think so," replies Father Chris Crowley at Whitefriar Street when I ask him whether all of Valentine might be interred in the Dublin church. And there are, he tells me, further remains of the saint at Derrynane Abbey in Kerry, a place closely associated with the great battler for Irish Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell.
In Italy, too, Valentine’s remains crop up, at his ancient stamping ground of Terni (known as Interamna in Roman times), 60 miles from Rome. Generous to a fault, he seems to have fairly spread himself about. At least three St Valentines are mentioned in early martyrologies, all with their feast days on 14 February. The two main contenders (whom some commentators think may have been the same person) are described as a Roman priest and physician, and a bishop of Interamna. Both were martyred around the year 270 AD and both are thought to have been buried along the Flaminian Way out of Rome. Nothing is known of a third Valentine, apart from the belief that he suffered for his faith in Africa.
Back in the Gorbals, Father Patrick agrees that the saint is a hard man to pin down - both of him: "They were both martyrs, but not a lot has been handed down about them, and all these legends surround them."
Digging out the documents of authentication of the remains (which, however, still don’t clarify which Valentine and which bits), he explains that the relics had been in the possession of a wealthy French Catholic family. During the 19th century, concerned that the family line was dying out, they approached the church authorities, who had heard of a new Franciscan church being built in Glasgow and decided to give the remains a permanent sanctuary in the Dear Green Place, where they were installed in 1882.
In the 17 centuries which have passed since the martyrdom of whichever Valentine, legends have proliferated. A salient theme is that during the rule of the emperor Claudius II (popularly referred to by the pantomime-villainish name of Claudius the Cruel), marriages and engagements were banned in Rome because of difficulty in recruiting responsibility-free lads for unpopular imperial campaigns. Claudius was also a stickler for the gods of Rome’s state religion. Valentine (let’s stick to the singular to avoid total bewilderment) practised as a Christian and secretly married couples, for which impertinence he was martyred with good old-fashioned Roman efficiency - clubbed to death then decapitated.
Another story is that while in prison Valentine miraculously restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter - and yet another claims that he was not initially a Christian but was imprisoned for helping Christians and was converted in time to be martyred. While incarcerated, he dispatched messages to friends saying: "Remember your Valentine."
Such nebulous accounts have been just waiting for someone to make a work of historical fiction out of them. American novelist and physicist Raymo has duly obliged with his recently published Valentine: A Love Story (10.99, Brandon Books). "It seemed to me a perfect story just waiting to be invented," chuckles the writer, who has fleshed out Valentine as an Alexandrian-born doctor in Rome, a strict rationalist and disciple of Galen and Lucretius, who becomes involved with Christians and, ironically, ends up a Christian martyr against his better judgment.
The novel also draws on the saint’s legendary association with his jailer’s daughter and develops a romance between the two. "The story of Valentine being imprisoned as a Christian and coming into contact with the daughter of his jailer has long been in circulation," he says. "There’s probably no historical basis for it, but it seemed to me a lovely story, although I do turn the story on its head."
While Raymo - who divides his time between Massachusetts and the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry - stresses that his novel is basically a love story, his protagonist’s rationalism and secular humanism during a period of religious turmoil reflects the author’s own interest in the relationship between science and spirituality.
"It seems to me that in the Roman empire, on the eve of Constantine and the institutionalisation of Christianity, some of the issues which interest us today were working themselves out then too," says Raymo, a former professor of physics and astronomy who recently retired from 25 years of writing a popular science column for the Boston Globe. "You have the tensions between secular humanism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other; also the tensions between individual freedom and institutional authority. And the familiar themes of globalisation versus localisation were very much at work in the late Roman empire as it began to break up and different localities and cults and sects began to assert themselves."
Not that Valentine is a dissertation: far from it, and its climax in the Roman amphitheatre, roping in a bloody circus of martyrs, gladiators, tigers and wolves, prompts one to wonder whether he wrote it with one eye on the resurgent "sword and sandals" movie market, a suggestion he cheerfully denies: "The book was basically researched and outlined before Gladiator came out. I had no idea when I was writing it that the classical period would suddenly become so popular. That was a fortuitous development, but I don’t know what might happen in that regard."
His experiences during the filming of an earlier novel of his, The Dork of Cork (as Frankie Starlight, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg) left him less than enamoured with the process of transmuting literature into cinema. "I was intimately involved and it almost killed me," he remarks dryly.
So those incurable romantics anxious to see Valentine: The Movie will have to wait.
Glasgow’s City of Love 2005 runs until Friday. For details visit www.cityoflove.co.uk
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