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Most Dubliners will be aware of the presence of what are said to be the relics of Saint Valentine in the Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street. The remains, and a vial that apparently contains the blood of this third-century martyr, are kept in a specially built shrine featuring a life-size statue of Valentine.

Shrine of St Valentine in Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin. By blackfish (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shrine of St Valentine in Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin. By blackfish (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, while Dublin’s shrine is probably the best known it appears that various bits of the patron saint of romance have turned up in other parts of the world too. The eighth-century Roman basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is home to a typically nineteenth-century bronzed reliquary containing a skull crowned with flowers. A label plastered across the skull’s forehead proudly proclaims it as the noggin of one ‘S. Valentinus.’

Then there are all the other locations claiming their own little bit of Valentine. There’s a shoulder blade in Prague, more skull fragments in Poland, some bones encased in an Italian-style life-size wax replica in a church in Missouri, and yet more relics in a comparatively sober wooden box housed in a church in the Gorbals in Glasgow. Every two years the town of Roquemaure, in southern France, parades its own set of Valentine relics through the streets as part of a festival commemorating the saint’s apparent intercession in ending a blight on the region’s vineyards in the 1860s.

It has been pointed out that we might be able to explain the multiplicity of these relics by noting the fact that there was probably more than one martyr called Valentine. What’s more, it is comparatively rare for even entirely authenticated relics to contain more than a few bones or fragments of skeleton.

What intrigues me most about the global spread of Valentine’s relics, however, is that it is intimately connected to the nineteenth-century craze for relics – especially relics of martyrs. I’ve always been grimly fascinated by the weirder elements of religious ritual and popular piety, and my recent research on nineteenth-century French Catholicism – especially on Denis Affre, the archbishop of Paris killed during the June Days in 1848 – has given me the perfect justification for reading up on relic cults and popular piety.

The veneration of saintly body parts was big in the Middle Ages, but had rather fallen out of fashion in intervening years. In the nineteenth century, however, the cults of saints and their relics experienced a major revival – one that, as both Philippe Boutry and Caroline Ford have pointed out, cannot be dissociated from the growth of ultramontane Catholicism during the same period.

Boutry’s meticulous research in the Vatican archives has revealed the sheer scale of the trade in relics from Rome during this period. The main ‘commodities’ were the remains of so-called ‘martyrs’, taken from the Roman catacombs. Boutry has estimated that between 1800 and 1850 almost 1400 bodies or bits of bodies were sent from Rome – with official authorisation – to various dioceses, schools and orders around the world, with the majority sent to France and Italy. This practice continued until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII banned future exhumations from the catacombs.

Though the Prague shoulder blade is said to have arrived there in the fourteenth century, most of the other bits of Valentine seem to have turned up in their current homes during the heyday of the relics revival. The Dublin relics arrived in 1836, after the Carmelite John Spratt was presented with them after a successful stint preaching in Rome. The Gorbals set was donated to the Franciscans in 1868 and then sent to Scotland. The arrival of the Valentine relics in Roquemaure was a typical example of the process whereby Roman martyrs (or bits thereof) ended up in French churches, with accounts differing as to whether it was the local bishop or a local landowner who procured the relics from Rome in a bid to halt the devastation of the vines by phylloxera.

The meaning and significance of these relics has shifted and changed over time. Most of the bits of martyrs dug up out of the catacombs and shipped to various parishes around Europe in the nineteenth century are no longer on display, the rather morbid practice of placing bits of bones in expensive reliquaries for veneration having once again fallen out of fashion in mainstream religious practice. But some remain popular, and Valentine – whoever he really was – is one of them. Though the body parts housed in Whitefriar Street Church are usually stowed away in their special shrine, every 14 February the casket is placed in front of the church’s main altar so that it might feature in special ceremonies.

On some level, it doesn’t really matter that these relics might all be Valentine, that none of them might be Valentine, or even whether Valentine really existed. Their purpose is more about being a physical manifestation of religious belief, superstitious as that can sometimes seem – and, in Valentine’s case, about the conflation of religious and romantic ritual.