Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
The above lines were written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382, in his poem, Parlement of Foules. It was written to honor the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, and is deemed the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with love. Before then, it was a feast day of the Roman Catholic Church honoring Saint Valentine. Of course, nobody's quite sure who this Valentine dude was, since there were three martyred men named Valentinus in the late third century AD: a Roman priest; a bishop of Interamna (now Terni); and a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. It was a really common name back then, like John, or Steve, or David. (UPDATE: Speaking of common names: "Spartacus." Happy Valentine's Day, Melissa! And congrats for handling a very tough situation with intelligence and grace.)
Nonetheless, in 496, Pope Gelasius I decreed the feast of Saint Valentine to honor this mysterious personage as one of those "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to god." An 18th century English antiquarian named Alban Butler started the rumor that the whole feast day was merely yet another attempt by the Church to provide the lumpenproletariat of that era with a religious holiday in place of the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, thereby further solidifying Christianity as the official state religion. (Jen-Luc Piquant has always expressed surprise at the effectiveness of this approach in converting the masses to Christianity, a strategy first employed by Constantine. It clearly made little difference to them what particular god they were required to worship, provided they got to throw a big party a few times a year.) Apparently, Butler made it up. But like just about everything associated with Saint Valentine, it makes a darn good story, which might explain why it wasn't debunked until 1981.
Today, of course, Valentine's Day is all about hearts and flowers and sappy Hallmark cards festooned with cheesy lines of verse -- and lots of science stories related to luuurve. For instance, Darksyde has a lovely rumination today on the history of roses. Over at the American Institute of Physics' Inside Science News Service, science writer Davide Castelvecchi describes recent work by Harvard University physicist Buddhapriya Chakrabarti on the physics of curling ribbons (not a skill I possess, alas). And for those who just want to get down and dirty, BuzzSkyline over at the Physics of Sex offers some useful tips to ensure a mind-blowing night of passion.
Not everyone is a fan of Valentine's Day, arguing that the holiday is just a cheap commercial marketing ploy that makes single people feel bad about themselves for not being in a relationship. It's arguably also about imposing artificial and unreasonably high expectations on couples to do something extra-specially romantic, which might explain why many pairs have huge fights around this time of year, when they don't outright call it quits. The naysayers have a valid point in that respect. I'm a bigger fan of spontaneously planning romantic moments throughout the year, because love is not a seasonal phenomenon.
Love might be a drug, however. This is also the time of year when the media resurrects the "love is all in your head, literally" stories: namely, that the body manufactures loads of dopamine and sends to all the regions of the brain associated with love -- the same regions assciated with, um, the rush of cocaine addiction. As for what happens when the initial infatuation wears off, we give you Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love:
"There are two stages of love, the first being attraction. During that stage, you get a brain bath of three chemicals that are natural amphetamines. You can stay up all night and talk till dawn, and feel giddy and euphoric. In time, these wane, and the second stage of love kicks in, attachment, and that's associated with a different brain chemistry, the endorphins, which have natural narcotic-like qualities."
Or, in the inimitable words of the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach: "So, over time, you become narcotized in a relationship. The cocaine buzz of infatuation gives way to a dull, blissed-out heroin addiction." (For more on this topic, see the Neely Tucker article in the Washington Post and check out the wisdom of OmniBrain.)
Ooh, snap! Score one for the Bah-Humbug Brigade. I admit to indulging in V-Day bashing in the past; anyone who's spent long lonely stretches in singledom can relate to feeling, well, a wee bit excluded on a holiday devoted to celebrating romantic love and coupledom. Which is why Pop Candy is offering not only a playlist of commenters' favorite love songs, but also a list of the best break-up songs. And if you mosey on over to Bad Cupid (patron saint of the Bah-Humbug Brigade), you'll find a fine selection of Breakup Haikus.
Personally, I was prone in the past to celebrating my singledom by reading Sir Thomas Wyatt: "Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare/Fond fancy's scum and dregs of scattered thought..." Now that guy was bitter (at least until you get to the sestet, which turns the entire octave rant on its head, in fine Petrarchan sonnet tradition). John Donne also had his bitter moments, penning such vitriolic lines as "Hope not for mind in women. At their best/ sweetness and wit, but mummy possess'd." (That's from Love's Alchemy, for those who keep track of such things.) In Song, he issues a challenge to find a woman both fair and faithful, concluding that even if a guy did manage to find such a creature, and report back to Donne, by the time Donne reached her she would have "false to two, or three."
But Donne was also one of the Great Hopeless Romantics when caught in the throes of courtly love. Which is why, this year, I find myself perusing his less acrimonious verses, offering the following as a virtual valentine to Future Spouse:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we loved. Were we not weaned till then,
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den?
'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear
For love all love of other sights controls
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.