Cards that come with love and XXXs.

More than half a century has passed since I last received a Valentine’s Day card, and more than six decades since any left me to guess the sender’s identity… Until the puppet-masters of commerce took over the saint’s feast day, anonymity was at the core of February 14th for many in a celebration whose roots can be traced to fertility rites in pre-Christian Rome.

The Victorian romantics welcomed the saint’s day, giving it a florid and floral embellishment as passionate as any poet’s love verse, though seldom including the hearts so ubiquitous in modern cards. But since then – as with the commercialisation of the two great Christian religious festivals, Christmas and Easter – Valentine’s Day has burgeoned into a business cash-cow, and last year generated an estimated £1.6 billion in retail sales of cards, gifts and flowers in Britain. Across the pond, in New York alone that figure was almost doubled – generating a record-breaking advertising bonanza as well.

Yet so little is known about the saint who came to symbolise romantic and courtly love and yearning, that even his identity is uncertain; and, until 1969 when the Catholic Church removed his name from the General Roman Calendar, hagiography marked February 14th as the saint’s day of two Valentines martyred in Rome – Valentine of Terni, clubbed to death in AD 197, and Valentine of Rome who was executed 299 years later.

According to some sources, Terni’s Valentine was martyred for witchcraft after curing a group of Roman virgins of blindness; others argue that he did not cure them, but instead found husbands for them – though neither explain why so charitable an act should merit so bleak and unromantic an end.

Several academics argue that a little-known Pope, Gelasius I, established February 14th as Valentine’s Day – successfully Christianising the pagan feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in ancient Rome as a fertility festival during which the skins of sacrificed goats were used to whip women to encourage fertility. Far from romantic in anyone’s book.

And a slew of hagiographers and historians prefer the Valentine who on February 14th, AD496 was buried in a cemetery near the Milvio bridge in north Rome. Their highly improbable, but widely accepted, version is that this Valentine fell in love with his gaoler’s daughter, and on the eve of his execution sent her a note declaring his love for her and signed it ‘from your Valentine’ – the first Valentine’s greeting.

None of which explains the emergence in 15th century France of Valentine as a major symbol of Medieval courtly love, whose saint’s day was celebrated with singing, dancing and lavish banquets. Or why among Britain’s Georgian aristocracy, Valentine should re-emerge as a symbol of romantic love.

The manuscript section of the British Library lays claim to the earliest written Valentine verse – in a letter to his wife from the Duke of Orleans, sent while a prisoner in the Tower of London after the 1415 battle of Agincourt, and which reads: ‘Je suis desja d’amour tanné, ma tres doulce Valentinée’ (or, roughly: ‘I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine’). The Library also claims the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in English. Sent in 1477 by a Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston, she describes him as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’.

Inevitably, Shakespeare got in on the act and in Hamlet gives Ophelia a reference to Valentine’s Day: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.” (Hamlet, Act. 4 Sc. 5.)

The first of the ‘roses are red, violets are blue…’ touches appear in a collection of nursery rhymes printed in 1784, according to cultural historian Anna Maria Barry who has studied the Valentine card extensively, uncovering a mass of material including the fact that the first true Valentine’s cards were sent in the 18th century.

‘Initially these were handmade efforts’, she writes. ‘Lovers would decorate paper with romantic symbols including flowers and love knots, often including puzzles and lines of poetry. Those who were less inspired could buy volumes that offered guidance on selecting the appropriate words and images to woo their lover. These cards were then slipped secretly under a door, or tied to a door-knocker.

The first printed commercial Valentine cards appeared in Georgian Britain but it was the Victorians who adopted them with gusto – and by the mid-1820s an estimated 200,000 cards were posted in London alone. The popularity of the printed cards was given a further fillip when in 1840 the cheap Uniform Penny Post was introduced. Barry suggests that by the late 1840s the amount of cards being circulated doubled, and re-doubled over the next two decades.

As part of its ‘Collections Online’ project, the Museum of London is currently digitalising its collection of more than 1,800 Victorian Valentines cards – believed to be the largest in the world and most of which were made and sold in London from 1840-1880 by a London printer, Jonathan King, who also collected cards privately.

‘Most of the cards subject matters illustrate the blossoming commercial symbolism of love,’ says a Museum press release, adding that King’s collection shows the range and development of the Valentine cards and its symbols. The earlier cards ‘build on inherited Valentine association with birds and gloves, and later feature the Victorian figure of cupid’, providing an intriguing record of how symbols are adopted and adapted, how they flourish or whither.

King’s private collection also includes spiteful cards, featuring cruel rhymes and caricatures, and which mock the recipient.

‘These,’ says the Museum solemnly, ‘would probably not have been treasured by their addressees.’

I shall put my mind to some this year and – for the first time in more than half a century – will post some.