There are a number of contenders for the title of Saint Valentine, along with a broad assortment of myths and legends which make it even more difficult to determine who St. Valentine was, and what it was that he did during his lifetime. People who are curious about the link between a martyr and a holiday dedicated to romantic love may want to take note of the fact that 14 February only became associated with love in the 14th century, a period when the concept of courtly love was flourishing. Notably, many of the stories linking St. Valentine and love also date to this period.
The Roman Catholic Martyrology lists a grand total of seven Saint Valentines. Of these seven, three are probable candidates for the St. Valentine associated with 14 February, but very little is known about them. Their contemporaries did not write very exhaustively about them, and two of the men may actually be the same man, judging from the similarities between their stories.
One of the candidates is known to have lived and been martyred in Africa, but nothing else about him is known. The other two were both Christians who lived in the third century. One is described as a Roman priest, and the other as a bishop in central Italy. The priest supposedly tried to convert the emperor to Christianity, and he also held secret Christian services and helped his fellow Christians. For his troubles, he was sentenced to death. This St. Valentine was first beaten by a crowd and then beheaded. In the 14th story, legends about secret marriages began to be associated with this St. Valentine, although no contemporary evidence supports these stories.
The bishop worked curing the sick, and was also sentenced to death for his Christian ministry. Intriguingly, the reports of his martyrdom describe him first being beaten by a crowd, and then beheaded. The parallels between the priest and the bishop would seem to strongly suggest that the two may have in fact been just one person. They were certainly never recorded in the same place at once, which is a strong indicator, and the fact that they were both martyred on 14 February is rather suspicious. They are also allegedly buried in the same location, the Via Flaminia.
Some people have suggested that St. Valentine may be an entirely invented figure, developed by the Church to distract people from the normally raucous proceedings of Lupercalia, a Roman holiday which took place on 15 February. The practice of adapting older holidays was by no means uncommon in the early Church, as it was used as a technique to encourage converts by allowing them to celebrate on familiar holidays. The scant information about the life of St. Valentine certainly supports this view, but on the other hand, Christians experienced severe oppression under Roman rule, and it is entirely possible that documentation about the man's life was lost or destroyed.