Why do we send Valentine's cards? Take heart and ask Galen - or a medical historian

Last Sunday I gave a talk to the Sunday Assembly East End, which organised a theme on the heart. This community-focused, heart-warming event used poetry, music and story telling to explore the meanings of the heart in forging relationships. My talk provided some historical context of some of the things we take for granted, including the language of “heart felt feelings”, rooted in the body as well as the mind. The heart is, after all, the first sign of life, detectable in the embryo and heard even before birth, thanks to medical technologies. 

But why is it so ubiquitous in the language of romance? And why do we send Valentine’s cards that are covered in hearts that look nothing like the organ we associate with our heartbeat? To understand this, and the whole world of iconography of the heart in the modern West, we need to know something of its medical and cultural history. For thousands of years, a humoral theory of the body dominated understanding of how emotions, personalities and experiences were formed. The Greek physician Galen, working with the writings of Hippocrates, envisaged the heart as the centre not only of the physical but also the psychological body ("psyche" then meaning soul). Head and heart were not separated, as they are today, into different realms. The heart was the furnace of the body, the place where humours were concocted, and where the soul moved in pursuit of its desires.

That is why the beating of the heart was so fundamental in showing the movement of the soul, and the desires of the individual. The heart was an active organ, pulling the soul towards what was good and away from what was evil. In this humoral landscape, hearts could be hard and soft, warm and cold; hearts and spirits lifted together or were crushed by grief. The iconography of the heart - not as the organ of science and a pump that emerged in the Victorian period, but as a blood-red, symmetrical symbol we now associate with Hallmark greetings cards - has become ubiquitous, especially around Valentine's Day.

St Valentine is usually remembered as a third century Roman priest, killed for marrying couples against the wishes of the Emperor, who believed single men made better soldiers. By the medieval period, the Valentine tradition of 14 February was commonplace, perhaps originating as an effort to Christianise the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which was held in February. 

The sentimentalism of the Victorians secured modern Valentine’s Day its convention of exchanging greetings cards in order to demonstrate love. Like the one that is depicted here, courtesy of Wellcome Images. And in keeping with the humoral tradition it is the heart that is placed at the centre: the organ that even now, while generally regarded as a pump, retains its traditional status as the organ of the self, personality, emotions and love. 

We may not give much thought to why we celebrate with the heart rather than any other organ. Though the modern separation of mind and body, and the belief that emotions are mostly products of the brain, suggests we might have moved away from the heart to the brain as a cultural symbol of love. Admittedly the results would be rather less aesthetically pleasing. "I brain you" carries a rather different meaning. 

To find out more about the history and cultural meanings of the heart as symbol and organ, why not check out my book, Matters of the Heart, which is available here.  You can also listen to a recent interview on the subject I recorded in Westminster Abbey for Radio 4 here.

Happy Valentine's Day! 

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