Saint Martin of Tours, Bishop

Martin, who became one of the most popular saints in medieval Europe, was born in 316 in Savaria, Pannonia (now Szombathely, Hungary). His father was a tribune (senior officer) in the Imperial Horse Guard, a unit of the Roman army. He was stationed at Ticimum, Cisalpine Gaul (now Pavia in Italy) and it was here that Martin grew up. Already at an early age he had a desire to become a Christian, although it was still very much a minority religion in Europe, and began receiving instruction as a catechumen. At the age of 15, as the son of a senior officer, he was expected to join the cavalry and was stationed near Ambianensium civitas (now Amiens).

It is at this period of his life that occurred the event for which he is best known and which became a favourite subject for artists. On seeing an almost naked beggar at Amiens, he cut his own cloak in two and gave one part to the beggar. This act of charity was followed that night by a dream in which Christ appeared to him wearing the part of the cloak he had given away.

The dream confirmed Martin in his Christian leanings and he was baptized at the age of 18. He served in the military for another two years until, just before a battle with the Gauls at Worms in 336, Martin determined that his faith was incompatible with war. He was quoted as saying:

I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.

He was charged with cowardice and jailed but, in response to the charge, volunteered to go unarmed to the front line. Before his commanders could challenge his offer, the enemy sued for peace. There was no battle and Martin was discharged.

After this, Martin became a disciple of Hilary at Poitiers, was baptized, and, after Hilary had been sent into exile, travelled to Pannonia, Milan, and IlIyricum. When Hilary returned to Poitiers in 360, Martin rejoined him and became a solitary hermit in Liguge, on a piece of land given to him by Hilary. It was here that some disciples joined him and formed what was the first monastery in Gaul. Martin remained a pioneer of the monastic movement until he was made bishop of Tours in 372 by the popular demand of the clergy and the people.

Even as a bishop, he continued to lead the very austere life of a monk. At first, he lived in a cell near his cathedral church, but later in Marmoutier, a monastery of 80 monks he founded facing Tours from the opposite bank of the Loire River. He also established other monasteries which he saw as an effective means for one of his objectives, the conversion of rural areas. Prior to this, Christianity had been largely confined to urban areas (the Latin word paganus means a ‘rural person’). Martin demolished temples built to idols, cut down trees believed to be sacred, and visited the more remote areas of his diocese on foot, by donkey, or by boat. During his 25 years as bishop, he earned an increasing reputation in miraculously healing lepers and even of bringing a dead man back to life.

He was also know for his involvement in doctrinal disputes. His main target were the followers of Priscillian, a Gnostic sect. Priscillian was condemned by the Synod of Bordeaux in 384, having been already condemned by Pope Damasus and St Ambrose. The sect appealed to the Emperor Maximus, but in the end they were convicted of sorcery, then a capital offence, by the emperor’s court at Trier in 386.

But Martin pleaded in Priscillian’s favour on the grounds that heretical teaching was a matter to be handled by the Church, and not by a secular court. Martin’s stand was not supported by many of his contemporaries. When Priscillian was put to death, the first time a person had been executed for heresy, his sect actually increased in numbers in Spain. It would continue to survive until about the 6th century.

As Martin he grew older and death was approaching, his people asked him not to leave them. As a response to their plea he prayed:

Lord, if your people still need me. I do not refuse the work; let your will be done.

He died at the age of 81 on 8 November, 397 at Candes, and was buried at Tours on 11 November.

His cult spread rapidly not only because of his reputation as a miracle-worker in life and after death, but also because of the Life of St Martin written by his friend Sulpicius Severus. This became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, comparable in influence with Athanasius’ Life of Antony, as a model for medieval hagiographers.

His cult in France is reflected in the 500 villages and 4,000 parish churches which are dedicated to him. His tomb became the principal place of pilgrimage for the Franks, and was a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Outside of Gaul, churches were soon consecrated in his honour at Rome, Ravenna, and later Chioggia. Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands all revered him widely. In Britain, from early times, he was a patron of churches – the most ancient being Canterbury (under Augustine) and Whithorn (under Ninian). By 1800, 173 churches in Britain bore his name.

From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, much of Western Europe, including Britain, engaged in a period of fasting beginning on the day after St Martin’s Day, November 11. This fast period lasted 40 days, and was, therefore, called Quadragesima Sancti Martini (the forty days of St Martin). At St Martin’s eve and on the feast day, people ate and drank heartily for the last time before beginning the fast. This fasting time would later be called Advent by the Church.

In art, the most popular scene is that of dividing his cloak to clothe a beggar, but there are also innumerable other representations in illuminated books and in stained glass at Tours, Chartres, Beauvais, and Bourges (in France) and York, Chalgrave and Nassington (in England). His emblems are either a globe of fire over his head seen while he celebrated Mass, or (from the 15th century) a goose, whose migration often coincides with his feast. ‘St Martin’s Summer’ is a spell of fine weather which sometimes occurs around his feast.

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