If you are basking in unusually warm weather this February 14, you may be enjoying an old-fashioned Valentine’s Day. According to some experts, during the Middle Ages, spring began in mid-February!
Identifying past weather patterns is always somewhat controversial, but history seems to show that a thousand years ago, the climate in Europe was as warm or warmer than it is now. (Today’s cities, with their energy use, are hotter than anything that we have seen in thousands, even tens of thousands of years.) However, some of the European countryside was as warm or warmer than today. Greenland really had some green pastures, and Vikings ran cattle. Poems describing the weather in England sound like sunny Italy.
Solar winter – the darkest quarter of the year – officially ends on February 5. SOURCE: NASA
During this period, springtime in Italy frequently began in mid-February. Flowers began to bloom. Birds began their mating rituals. Originally the Romans had had a mid-February fertility festival, Lupercalia to celebrate the change of seasons. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius I replaced the rather raunchy affair with a saint’s day – St. Valentine’s Day.
That should have ended everything. St Valentine was a nice guy who was kind to children, helped the early Christians and was executed on February 14. There was nothing lusty about him. However, legends say he healed and befriended his jail keeper’s daughter and sent her a farewell note “From your Valentine.” Some people decided that this was romantic.
A romantic saint and the beginning of spring equals a mushy mid-February holiday. By the Medieval Warm Period, societies from England to Italy cheerfully celebrated his saint’s day with villages pairing up young men and women for dances and dalliance.
A thousand years ago, European weather was very warm.
Technically, solar winter ends on February 5. The darkest quarter of the year lasts from November 5 to February. Even in the Little Ice Age, people noticed that the days were becoming sunnier. It might have been hard to gather flowers, but romance continued to bloom on February 14.
This winter has been as sunny and warm for much of the US and Canada as any day in the Medieval Warm Period. Flowers (very confused flowers) have begun to bloom in New York City. Gardens are starting to perk up. Spring may not have arrived but it is definitely in the air.
Here’s hoping that your Valentine’s Day is as warm and romantic.
Let us know what your Valentine’s Day is like – a medieval warm spell or a blast of a little ice age.
Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.