Published: Feb. 12, 2006

The ritual of courtship on Valentine's Day has fallen mainly on the shoulders of men down through the centuries, and men today may think that dinner, flowers and gifts are a lot of responsibility.

But according to University of Colorado at Boulder English Professor Michael Bell, modern-day duties are light compared to what men had to endure centuries ago.

"There was one practice among the nobility in southern France in the 12th century where a match between men and women was made from random slips of paper on Valentine's Day and the match had to last for a year," said Bell. "And that meant having to supply her with flowers every week, escort her to church and any other place she wanted to be escorted and if she was insulted you had to take vengeance on anybody who insulted her."

According to Hallmark, 180 million cards are given annually on Valentine's Day in America and the tradition probably began with the exchange of handmade valentines in the early 1700s.

In the 19th century, Bell said people in western Germany and northeastern France had a tradition where they exchanged more than just cards.

"Some of these communities would get together around a big bonfire around the first Sunday in Lent marked on the Christian calendar and whoever was presiding for the day would match up men and women for the following week, whether they were ugly or handsome, rich or poor, old or young, in what was called a marriage," Bell said. "But all that was really involved was that they had to trade presents and they had to go the following Sunday to a dance."

And for the young lover who was not very poetic or just shy, Bell said that in 1797 a British publisher issued the "The Young Man's Valentine Writer," which contained scores of sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own poetry.

On the other hand, Valentine's Day traditions probably gave women a chance to be more assertive in societies that normally would have disapproved of such behavior, Bell said.

"In a way, some of the Valentine's rituals gave the initiative to women, a kind of a safety valve that allowed them to break or transcend for a brief time the taboo of their own society," he said.

The earliest Valentine's Day card still in existence was sent in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. It is now in the British Museum.