Februa, the Lupercalia and St Valentine

A school assembly I wrote for Wednesday 6th February 2013

Do you know who St Valentine was? Or what he had to do with expressions of love? Or even why we call February February? By the end of today’s assembly, you may still not know the answers to those questions, but at least you might be aware of your ignorance. First, an extract from a series of stories many of you will recognise.

[Roman Mysteries excerpt 1]

Presently the carriage emerged from between tall apartment blocks and the long Circus Maximus lay before them on the left. Beyond it rose the Palatine Hill, with the colourful columns and domes of the Imperial Palace partly screened by cypress, palms and umbrella pines.
Lupus sat up with interest. The broad street was suddenly full of people, mostly women and girls. Despite the heavy sky and the stench of death they seemed excited, even cheerful.
‘Pollux!’ cursed the messenger. ‘I’d hope we would avoid it.’
‘No such luck,’ growled the cart-driver.
‘Imagine them coming out today.’
‘I know,’ said the driver, and added, ‘my wife’s probably here. As if we don’t have enough mouths to feed already…’
‘What is it?’ Flavia’s head pushed through the gap in the canvas and she peered over Lupus’s shoulder.
‘Today’s the Lupercalia,’ said the imperial messenger. ‘The ceremony’s not quite finished. You’d better get back inside. Here come the wolves.’


Caroline Lawrence is describing the Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival originally celebrated by shepherds. It ran from the 13th to the 15th of February. By the time of Julius Caesar, many of the noble youths and of the magistrates would celebrate by running up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they met with shaggy strips of goat-skin still dripping with blood, and many women also tried to get in their way, and presented their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant would thus be helped in delivery, and those who had not been able to have children would get pregnant.

First the priests sacrificed two goats and a dog, then they cut strips off the flesh, which were known as februa. It was these strips that women wanted to smack their palms as the naked magistrates ran past, so that they could become pregnant.

Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar begins during the Lupercalia, and it is at this time that Caesar famously refuses to be given a crown, an event which contributes to his gruesome murder exactly a month later on the Ides of March. Here are a few lines from this play.

[Julius Caesar extract]

Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!

Caesar, my lord?

Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

I shall remember:
When Caesar says ‘do this,’ it is perform’d.

Set on; and leave no ceremony out.


Ha! who calls?

Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.


By the 5th century AD, the Romans were still naming the month after those blood-soaked februa strips of goat (as we still do now) but the Empire was Christian, and such Pagan rituals had fallen out of favour. The Feast of St Valentine started to become the festival celebrated at exactly this time of year.

But do you know who St Valentine was? The truth is, nobody really does. The only thing we seem to know is his name and the fact that he died on the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14th. It is even uncertain whether St. Valentine is to be identified with only one saint or two saints of the same name.

He certainly didn’t seem to have anything to do with romantic love, at least until the fourteenth century, when Chaucer wrote a poem to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia.

[Chaucer extract]

And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kinde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
In swich aray men mighten hir ther finde.
This noble emperesse, ful of grace,
Bad every foul to take his owne place,
As they were wont alwey fro yeer to yere,
Seynt Valentynes day, to stonden there.


These days, verses in Valentine’s cards often echo the 18th century nursery rhyme:

[Nursery rhyme extract]

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.


Now, it may well be that you find all this emotion and sweetness a bit tacky, or it may be that you can’t wait for the 14th of February, and the chance to announce the intensity of your feelings to your beloved. But when you read the verse inside the Valentine’s Day card with which your admirer has chosen to express that passion, you might think about how the day would have been celebrated if we still celebrated the Lupercalia rather than the Feast of St Valentine, whoever he was…

[Roman Mysteries excerpt 2]

In the dim interior of the imperial carruca, Nubia shivered and pulled her lionskin cloak tighter round her shoulders.
She had been glad when they closed the flaps of the carriage. The sight of the men on their crosses and the terrible sweet scent of burning corpses had brought a deep sense of dread upon her. She wished she was back in Ostia. She and Flavia could be at the baths now, sitting in the hot laconicum with its resinated scent of baking pinewood.
Flavia was telling her about the Lupercalia, explaining that it was a festival for fertility, but Nubia wasn’t listening. And she was only vaguely aware of the sound of women’s shrieking laughter outside the carriage.
She was worried about Nipur. Would Alma remember to let him out for his afternoon romp in the woods?
Suddenly light flooded the interior of the carriage as one of the canvas flaps was thrown aside. Flavia squealed and Jonathan uttered an exclamation of surprise. Nubia looked up to see a blood-smeared teenager framed in the opening, naked apart from a leather loin-cloth and a wolf skin over his shoulders. The youth’s laughing mouth was open and she could see his sharp little teeth and the whites of his eyes. He flicked something at Nubia and she flinched. Then he was gone and the carriage was dim again and everyone was looking at her. Nubia looked round at them and then down at herself.
She burst into tears.
Her precious lionskin clock was spattered with bright red drops of fresh blood.

[the end]


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