And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 19. februar 2016

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part III - Drama through Dialogue, and the Legend of Saint Valentine

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

- Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Foules

In this series of blogposts I'm looking at certain narrative aspects and techniques in the lives of the saints. Previously, I have looked at narrative technique in very short accounts, touching on how thenarrative is affected by its brevity, and also on how narratives are shaped when the legend is concernedwith a multitude of protagonists. In this blogposts, I use the legend of Saint Valentine to look how the narrative changes through the use of direct speech, as compared to a more straightforward account. As an example of the latter, I rely on the legend of Valentine as contained in the Nuremberg Chronicles and as told in the Legenda Aurea.

Saint Valentine is arguably among the most widely known saints of the world, although I think it's a fair assumption to say that the knowledge does not go very far beyond the name and his feast-day, February 14, alternately known as all hearts' day and singles awareness day. This connection between Valentine and the celebration of couples in love is attested to by the epigraph above, taken from Chaucer's Parliament of Foules, and can thus be suspected to be commonplace in the fourteenth century England. 

Almanac for February, with the bird of Valentine to the far right on the other page
BL MS Royal 17 A XVI, agricultural almanac with calendar, c.1420
Courtesy of British Library

The Nuremberg Chronicle

Another and quite pervasive story claims that the connection between Valentine and love is far older and stronger than that. According to this version, Valentine was a late Roman priest who married couples despite the prohibition against Christian marriage under imperial law. There might an old legend making such claims, and according to the Wikipedia article on Saint Valentine this story is found in the Nuremberg Chronicle, written by Hartmann Schedel and published in 1493. The Nuremberg Chronicle is a world history including many episodes from the lives of the saints. Valentine's legend is recounted on folio 122r, a folio which contains the tail end of the martyrdoms of the eighth persecutions and the beginning of the ninth persecution of the church by Roman authorities.

In the searchable online edition of Walter Schmauch's English translation of the Chronicle, this account appears to be the only one depicting the death of Valentine, and it contains no reference to marriage, only Valentine's mockery of the pagan gods. The legend goes as follows (my brackets):

[Valentine], a Roman priest, after giving evidence of exceptional learning and writing, was imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius; and being asked his opinion concerning the pagan gods, said: Jupiter, Mercury, and the other gods were miserable human beings. Afterwards he enlightened the daughter of Asterius [by healing her blindness]. He brought her and forty-nine persons of her household to the Christian faith. Finally, at the command of the emperor, he was severely beaten with clubs, and was beheaded on the 14th day of the month of February.
- Hartmann Schedel,
The Nuremberg Chronicle, translated by Walter Schmauch

The confusion regarding Saint Valentine goes very far back, as even old martyrologies contained reference to two or even three martyrs called Valentine being celebrated on February 14. One Valentine is a Roman priest, another a bishop of modern-day Terni in Italy, but both being killed during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. David Farmer in his
Oxford Encyclopedia of Saints suggests that these Valentines are one and the same.

Valentine interrogated
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, c.1310-c.1320
Courtesy of British Library

Legenda Aurea

The legend of Valentine is presented in a slightly more elaborate and dramatic fashion in Jacobus de Voragine's
Legenda Aurea, written around 1260 in Italy. The elaboration consists in snippets of direct speech, but it contains no further essential details than what we find two centuries later in the Nuremberg Chronicle (although they disagree on the method of execution). The story is nonetheless markedly different, because Jacobus gives the characters of the legend their own speeches, thus making them coming alive, making them more memorable. The version by Jacobus comes after an explanation of the meaning of Valentine's name and goes as follows (my brackets):
Valentine was a venerable priest, whom the emperor Claudius [II] summoned before him. "What is this, Valentine?" he asked. "Why do you not win our friendship by adoring our gods and abandoning your vain superstitions?" Valentine answered: "If you but knew the grace of God, you would not say such things! You would turn your mind away from your idols and adore the God who is in heaven." One of the people standing by Claudius said: "Valentine, what have you to say about the holiness of our gods?" "All I have to say about them," Valentine replied, "is that they were wretched human beings full of every uncleanness!" Claudius spoke: "If Christ is true God, why do you not tell me the truth?" Valentine: "Truly Christ alone is God! If you believe in him, your soul will be saved, the empire will prosper, and you will be granted victory over all your enemies!" Claudius responded, saying to those around him: "Men of Rome, heed how wisely and rightly this man speaks!" Then the prefect said: "The emperor is being led astray! How shall we give up what we have believed from infancy?"
At this the heart of Claudius was hardened, and he turned Valentine over to the prefect to be held in custody. When Valentine came into this man's house, he said: "Lord Jesus Christ, true light, enlighten this house and let all here know you as true God!" The prefect said: "I wonder at hearing you say that Christ is light. Indeed, if he gives light to my daughter who has been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you tell me to do!" Valentine prayed over the daughter, her sight was restored, and the whole household was converted to the faith. Then the emperor ordered Valentine to be beheaded, about A.D. 280 [a date which is ten years after the death of Claudius II].
- Jacobus de Voragine,
The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, 2012

Valentine beheaded
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, c.1310-c.1320
Courtesy of British Library

On narrative and dramatic speech

As we see, the use of dialogue makes the story of Valentine according to Jacobus become much more captivating and dramatic than is the case in the
Nuremberg Chronicle. One important consequence is that the narrative is more memorable: Valentine is not a taciturn figure whose narrative is left solely to the narrator, he is a character in a dramatic passion play, his own passion play. Furthermore, he also becomes quotable, delivering verbal punches of Christian defiance. In addition, the legend of Valentine becomes in this way peopled by more characters with whom Valentine can perform his verbal battle, and who serve as foils for his perfect Christian truth: The emperor begins promisingly but falls because he listens to others instead of following his heart, while the prefect begins as a pagan responsible for Valentine's imprisonment but becomes the saint's Christian brother instead. These two minor personal dramas are played out within the passion story of Valentine, and we only properly access these personal dramas by way of dialogue, as the dramatic speech provide brief glimpses into the thoughts and concerns of the two antagonistic figures in the narrative.

The question then is why the legend is rendered in this way by Jacobus. One possible explanation is that he quotes directly from an existing
vita, though the lack of detail and the brevity of the narrative might suggest that he draws from his own memory rather than a specific written source. It is important to underline, that the difference between the story as presented in Legenda Aurea and the Nuremberg Chronicle does not have to do with the different genres at play, hagiography and historiography. Indeed, chronicles often contained direct dramatic speech, and the contents of these were likely to be put in the mouths of the characters by the historiographers to increase the drama or to present the complex rationale behind an action in an easily accessible way. Among the many medieval historians who practiced this kind of editorial inventiveness I want to name the tenth-century Italian bishop Liutprand of Cremona, and the twelfth-century English historian Henry Huntingdon, to suggest how widespread this phenomenon was.

Since the distinguishing feature is, in my mind, not the genre of the work, I will instead suggest that the key lies in the purpose of the work. Jacobus de Voragine wrote
Legenda Aurea as a compendium for homilists from which they could find material for their sermons on the various liturgical feasts. I therefore suggest that the dramatic dialogue serves partly as a mnemonic tool by which homilists could more easily remember the story, hence the result that the story becomes more memorable. Another point to make is that, as mentioned, Valentine becomes quotable, thus providing the homilists with material by which they can make their sermons more exciting.

A third and final point regarding the dialogue is that we might consider it as a form of
imitatio Christi. I have elsewhere written about how a debate between the saint and pagans about the nature of divinity or other subjects could be ways of imitating Christ when he was twelve and lectured the learned men in the temple. This kind of rhetorical imitatio is perhaps most famously known as performed by Catherine of Alexandria, but we can also see some of this in Valentine's dismissal of the pagan gods.

In short, I believe that Jacobus' use of dramatic speech is there to bring the story more alive to his audience who in turn had as their job to make the story more alive to their own audiences in church. It might also be that the dialogue serve to embellish a narrative about a saint of whom very little is known.


As an afterthought, Jacobus is not the only one to dramatize the story of Saint Valentine. One dramatic rendition of the legend was narrated by Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, S06E16. Its veracity is dubious on many accounts, but I will let that doubt speak for itself.

Valentine and his best bro Desperatius
From HIMYM S06E16 (for the full clip, see below)

Courtesy of this website


Farmer, David,
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine,
The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Schedel, Hermann,
The Nuremberg Chronicle, translated by Walter Schmauch, accessed at Morse Library, Beliot College, online edition:


The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Wikipedia: ttps://

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