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St Valentine blessing an epileptic man.
St Valentine blessing an epileptic man. / wellcomeimages.org

Saint Valentine, patron saint of epilepsy

  • Saint Valentine is thought to have been an Italian priest who was beheaded in 270 AD for not renouncing Christianity

February 14th, Valentine's Day, is traditionally known as a day for lovers with cards, chocolates and red roses exchanged.

Less well known is that St Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy sufferers.

In ancient times, when there was very little medical knowledge, epilepsy was regarded with fear and suspicion and was thought to be caused by supernatural forces, retribution by the gods or evidence of being possessed by evil spirits.

In the bible there are various references to physical ailments that have all the hallmarks of being epilepsy. The apostle Paul talked about his own illness in letters in the book of Corinthians which led to the neurological disorder being called St Paul's disease in Catholic Ireland.

By the middle ages people were praying to around 40 different saints for relief from epilepsy, only beaten by the number of saints (60) prayed to for relief during the plague.

Besides St Valentine, St Vitus was also believed to help epilepsy sufferers and spawned the term 'St Vitus' Dance' for the condition.

It is possible that there was more than one Saint Valentine; it is known that there was a Valentine who was a priest and a physician in Roman times. When he refused to renounce Christianity he was beheaded by Claudius II on 14 February 270AD. Another Valentine was Bishop of Interramna (now called Terni) in Umbria, Italy. He prayed for the sick to be cured and was thrown into prison and later beheaded.

The similarities between the two stories have led historians to believe they were possibly one and the same person.

Some believe that the link between Valentine and epilepsy, which was also known as the falling sickness, could be due to the similarity between the German verb 'fallen' and the first part of the saint's name.

The Nuremberg Chronicle printed in 1693, has a representation of Saint Valentine curing a boy having a seizure, echoing stories in the bible where Jesus heals a boy with epilepsy by driving out an evil spirit.