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Martin of Tours

Saint Martin of Tours (Martinus), (316/317, Savaria, PannoniaNovember 8, 317, Candes, Gaul; buried November 11, 397, Candes, Gaul) was a bishop of Tours whose shrine became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Around his name much legendary material accrued and he has become one of the most familiar and recognizable Roman Catholic saints. He is considered a spiritual bridge across Europe between France and Hungary.
Some of the accounts of his travels may have been interpolated into his vita to give credence to early sites of his cult. His life was recorded by a contemporary, the hagiographer Sulpicius Severus. He is a patron saint of France and of soldiers.

Early life

Martin was named after Mars, god of war, which Sulpicius Severus interpreted as "the brave, the courageous". He was born at Savaria, Pannonia (today Szombathely, Hungary). His father was a senior officer (tribune) in the Imperial Horse Guard, a unit of the Roman army, and was later stationed at Ticinum, Cisalpine Gaul (modern Pavia, Italy), where Martin grew up.

At the age of ten, he went to the church against the wishes of his parents and became a catechumen or candidate for baptism. At this time, Christianity had been made a legal religion (in 316), but it was by no means the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. It had many more adherents in the Eastern Empire, whence it had sprung, and was concentrated in cities, brought along the trade routes by converted Jews and Greeks (the term 'pagan' literally means 'country-dweller'). Christianity was still far from accepted amongst the higher echelons of society, and in the army the cult of Mithras would have been stronger. Although the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and the subsequent programme of church-building, gave a greater impetus to the spread of the religion, it was still a minority faith. When Martin was fifteen, as the son of a veteran officer, he was required to join a cavalry ala himself and thus, around 334 was stationed at Ambianensium civitas or Samarobriva in Gaul (modern Amiens, France). It is therefore likely that he joined the equites catafractarii Ambianenses, a unit of cataphracti listed in the Notitia Dignitatum.

The Legend of the Cloak

While Martin was still a soldier at Amiens he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clad me." (Sulpicius, ch 2). In another story, when Martin woke his cloak was restored, and the miraculous cloak was preserved among the relic collection of the Merovingian kings of the Franks.

The dream confirmed Martin in his piety 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 prohibited him from fighting, saying, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.

Martin declared his vocation and made his way to the city of Tours, where he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, a chief proponent of Trinitarian Christianity, opposing the Arianism of the Visigothic nobility. When Hilary was forced into exile from Poitiers, Martin returned to Italy, converting an Alpine brigand on the way, according to his biographer Sulpicius Severus, and confronting the Devil himself. Returning from Illyria, he was confronted by the Arian archbishop of Milan Auxentius, who expelled him from the city. According to the early sources, he decided to seek shelter on the island then called Gallinaria, now Isola d'Albenga, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he lived the solitary life of a hermit.

Attacking polytheists, countering the Arians

With the return of Hilary to his see in 361, Martin joined him and established a monastery nearby, at the site that developed into the Benedictine Ligugé Abbey, the first in Gaul; it became a center for the evangelization of the country districts. He traveled and preached through Western Gaul: "The memory of these apostolic journeyings survives to our day in the numerous local legends of which Martin is the hero and which indicate roughly the routes that he followed." (Catholic Encyclopedia).

In 371 Martin was acclaimed bishop of Tours, where he impressed the city with his demeanor, and by the enthusiasm with which he had pagan temples, altars and sculptures destroyed. It may indicate the depth of the Druidic folk religion compared to the veneer of Roman classical culture in the area, that "when in a certain village he had demolished a very ancient temple, and had set about cutting down a pine-tree, which stood close to the temple, the chief priest of that place, and a crowd of other heathens began to oppose him; and these people, though, under the influence of the Lord, they had been quiet while the temple was being overthrown, could not patiently allow the tree to be cut down" (Sulpicius, Vita ch. xiii). Sulpicius affirms that he withdrew from the press of attention in the city to live in Marmoutier (Majus Monasterium), the monastery he founded, which faces Tours from the opposite shore of the Loire. Martin introduced a rudimentary parish system.

Martin's order at Marmoutier

Sulpicius Severus described the severe restrictions of the life of Martin among the cave-dwelling cenobites who gathered around him, a rare view of a monastic community that preceded the Benedictine rule:
Many also of the brethren had, in the same manner, fashioned retreats for themselves, but most of them had formed these out of the rock of the overhanging mountain, hollowed into caves. There were altogether eighty disciples, who were being disciplined after the example of the saintly master. No one there had anything which was called his own; all things were possessed in common. It was not allowed either to buy or to sell anything, as is the custom among most monks. No art was practiced there, except that of transcribers, and even this was assigned to the brethren of younger years, while the elders spent their time in prayer. Rarely did any one of them go beyond the cell, unless when they assembled at the place of prayer. They all took their food together, after the hour of fasting was past. No one used wine, except when illness compelled them to do so. Most of them were clothed in garments of camels' hair. Any dress approaching to softness was there deemed criminal, and this must be thought the more remarkable, because many among them were such as are deemed of noble rank. (Sulpicius, Vita, X)

Defender of the Priscillianists

His role in the matter of the followers of Priscillian was especially remarkable. The First Council of Saragossa had condemned Priscillian and his supporters as heretics. Priscillian and his supporters had fled, and some bishops of Hispania, led by Bishop Ithacius brought charges before Emperor Magnus Maximus. Although greatly opposed to the Priscillianists, Martin hurried to the Imperial court of Trier on an errand of mercy to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. At first, Maximus acceded to his entreaty, but, when Martin had departed, yielded to the solicitations of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded (385), the first Christians executed for heresy. Deeply grieved, Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius, until pressured by the Emperor.

The shrine and the cult

The veneration of Martin was hugely popular in the Middle Ages. When Bishop Perpetuus took office at Tours in 461, the little chapel over Martin's grave, built in the previous century by Martin's immediate successor, Bricius, was no longer sufficient for the crowd of pilgrims it was already drawing. Perpetuus built a more suitably grand basilica, 160 ft long and wide, with 120 columns. His body was taken from the simple chapel at his hermitage at Candes St Martin to Tours and his sarcophagus was reburied behind the high altar of the great new basilica; A large block of marble above the tomb, the gift of bishop Euphronius of Autun (472-475), rendered it visible to the faithful gathered behind the high altar, and perhaps, Werner Jacobsen suggests, also to pilgrims encamped in the atrium of the basilica, which, contrary to the usual arrangement, was sited behind the church, close to the tomb in the apse, which may have been visible through a fenestrella in the apse wall.

St. Martin's popularity can be partially attributed to his adoption by successive royal houses of France. Clovis (Cholodovech), King of the Salian Franks, one of many warring tribes in sixth century France, promised his Christian wife Clotilda that he would be baptised if he was victorious over the Alemanni; he credited the intervention of St Martin with his success, and with several following triumphs, including the defeat of Alaric II. As a result, Clovis was able to move his capital to Paris, and he is considered to be the 'Founder of France'. The cult of St Martin continued to be closely identified with the Merovingian monarchy: in the early seventh century Dagobert commissioned the goldsmith Eligius to make a wonderful work in gold and gems for the tomb-shrine. The later bishop, Gregory of Tours, made it his business to write and see distributed an influential Life filled with miraculous events of the saint's career. Martin's cultus survived the passage of power to their successors, the Carolinginian dynasty.

The Abbey of Saint-Martin at Tours was one of the most prominent and influential establishments in Medieval France. Charlemagne awarded the position of Abbot to his friend and adviser, the great English scholar and educator Alcuin. At this time the Abbot was able to travel between Tours and the court at Trier in Germany and always stay overnight at one of his own properties. It was at Tours that Alcuin's scriptorium developed Caroline minuscule, the clear round hand which made manuscripts far more legible. The basilica was destroyed by fire on several occasions, and it and the monastery were sacked by Norman Vikings in 996.

Rebuilt beginning in 1014, by Hervé de Buzançais, treasurer of Saint Martin, both to accommodate the crowds of pilgrims and to draw them, the shrine of St. Martin of Tours became a major stopping-point on pilgrimages; gothic vaults replaced the Romanesque ones and in 1453 the remains of Saint Martin were transferred to a magnificent new reliquary offered by Charles VII of France and Agnes Sorel. The basilica was sacked by Huguenots in 1562, during the Wars of Religion, then during the French Revolution, deconsecrated, used as a stable, then utterly demolished, its dressed stones sold in 1802 when two streets were opened on the site, to ensure it would not be rebuilt.

In 1860, excavations of Léon Papin Dupont (1797-1876) established the dimensions of its former site and recovered some fragments of architecture. The project for a new basilica took shape in the resurgence of conservative Catholic piety after the radical Paris Commune of 1871. The architect selected was Victor Laloux, the style a mix of Romanesque and Byzantine. The new Basilique Saint-Martin on a portion of its former site that was repurchased from the owners, was consecrated 4 July 1925.


The early life of Saint Martin that was written by Sulpicius Severus who knew him personally, while it expresses the intimate closeness the 4th century Christian felt with the Devil in all his disguises, is at the same time filled with accounts of miracles so extravagant as apparently to challenge disbelief. Some follow familiar conventions— casting out devils, raising the paralytic and the dead— others are more unusual: turning back the flames from a house while Martin was burning down the Roman temple it adjoined; deflecting the path of a felled sacred pine; the healing power of a letter written from Martin, indeed "threads from Martin's garment, or such as had been plucked from the sackcloth which he wore, wrought frequent miracles upon those who were sick."

The first occasion on which Martin restored the dead to life was that of the catechumen who lived with him in his cell near Poitiers. He returned from a three-day absence to find

The body being laid out in public was being honored by the last sad offices on the part of the mourning brethren, when Martin hurries up to them with tears and lamentations. But then laying hold; as it were, of the Holy Spirit, with the whole powers of his mind, he orders the others to quit the cell in which the body was lying; and bolting the door, he stretches himself at full length on the dead limbs of the departed brother. Having given himself for some time to earnest prayer, and perceiving by means of the Spirit of God that power was present, he then rose up for a little, and gazing on the countenance of the deceased, he waited without misgiving for the result of his prayer and of the mercy of the Lord. And scarcely had the space of two hours elapsed, when he saw the dead man begin to move a little in all his members, and to tremble with his eyes opened for the practice of sight. Then indeed, turning to the Lord with a loud voice and giving thanks, he filled the cell with his ejaculations (Sulpicius Severus, Vita).

In one instance, the druids agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in the path of its fall. He did so, and it miraculously missed him very narrowly. Sulpicius, a classically educated aristocrat, related this anecdote with dramatic details, as a set piece. Sulpicius could not have failed to know the incident the Roman poet Horace recalls in several Odes, of his narrow escape from a falling tree (Odes ii.13 and .17 and iii.4) — a tree that Horace says, addressing it, was "reared with a sacrilegious hand for the destruction of posterity" (sacrilega manu produxit, arbos, in nepotum perniciem).


From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, much of Western Europe, including Great 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," which means in Latin "the forty days of St. Martin." At St. Martin's eve and on the feast day, people ate and drank very heartily for a last time before they started to fast. This fasting time was later called "Advent" by the Church. On St. Martin's Day, children in Flanders, the southern and north-western parts of the Netherlands, the Catholic areas of Germany and Austria participate in paper lantern processions. Often, a man dressed as St. Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession. The children sing songs about St. Martin and about their lanterns. The food traditionally eaten on the day is goose. According to legend, Martin was reluctant to become bishop, which is why he hid in a stable filled with geese. The noise made by the geese betrayed his location to the people who were looking for him.

In Malta, children are sometimes given a bag full of nuts, hazelnuts, oranges and tangerines. In old days, nuts were then used by the children in their games. The parish of Baħrija is dedicated to Saint Martin and on his feast a fair with agricultural produce and animals is organized.

Also, in the east part of the Belgian province of East-Flanders (Aalst) and the west part of West Flanders (Ypres), children receive presents from St. Martin on November 11, instead of from Saint Nicholas on December 6 or Santa Claus on December 25. There are also lantern processions, for which children make lanterns out of beets.

In recent years, the lantern processions have become widespread, even in Protestant areas of Germany and the Netherlands, despite the fact that most Protestant churches do not recognize Saints as a distinct class of believers from the laity.

In Portugal, where the saint's day is celebrated across the country, it is common for families and friends to gather around the fire in reunions called "magustos", where they typically eat roasted chestnuts and drink wine, "jeropiga" (drink made of grape must and firewater) and "aguapé" (a sort of weak and watered-down wine). According to the most widespread variation of the cloak story, Saint Martin cut off half of his cloak in order to offer it to a beggar and along the way he gave the remaining part to a second beggar. As he faced a long ride in a freezing weather, the dark clouds cleared away and the sun shone so intensely that the frost melted away. As this evolution was extremely odd for the time of the year (early November), it is credited to God's intervention. The phenomena of a sunny break to the chilly weather on Saint Martin's Day (11th November), which curiously enough still occurs today is called "Verão de São Martinho" (Saint Martin's Summer) in honor of the cloak legend.

Many churches in Europe are named after Saint Martinus, also known as Saint Martin of Tours. St. Martin is the patron saint of Szombathely, Hungary with a church dedicated to him, and also the patron saint of Buenos Aires. In the Netherlands he is the patron of the cathedral and city of Utrecht.

In Latin America, he has a strong popular following and is frequently referred to as San Martín Caballero, in reference to his common depiction on horseback.

San Martín de Loba is the name of a municipality in the Bolívar Department of Colombia. Saint Martin, as San Martín de Loba, is the patron saint of Vasquez, a small village in Colombia.

Though no mention of St. Martin's connection with viticulture is made by Gregory of Tours or other early hagiographers, he is now credited with a prominent role in spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region and facilitated the planting of many vines. The Greek myth that Aristaeus first discovered the concept of pruning the vines after watching a goat eat some of the foliage has been applied to Martin. He is also credited with introducing the Chenin Blanc grape varietal, from which most of the white wine of western Touraine and Anjou is made.

A social organization in Germany that helps in building hospitals, houses for handicapped people, and monasteries is named the Order of St. Martin (Sankt Martin Orden). This organisation has projects in different European states. Its most active members could be decorated with the most honorable Order of St.Martin, which is divided into five classes.

Martin Luther was named after St. Martin, as he was baptized on November 11 (St. Martin's Day), 1483. Many Lutheran congregations are named after St. Martin which is unusual (for Lutherans) because he is a saint who does not appear in the Bible. (Lutherans regularly name congregations after the evangelists and other saints who appear in the Bible but are hesitant to name congregations after post-Biblical saints.)

Martin of Tours is the patron saint of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, which has a medal in his name.



  • Sulpicius Severus On the Life of St. Martin. Translation and Notes by Alexander Roberts. In A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, New York, 1894, available online
  • Clare Stancliffe, St Martin and his hagiographer: History and miracle in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. xvi+400 (Oxford Historical Monographs).
  • Timothy D. Barnes, "The Military Career of Martin of Tours," Analecta Bollandiana, Т. 114,1-2 (1996).
  • Virginia Burrus, "Domination and Submission in the Life of Martin," in Eadem, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp 94-103.
  • Meinolf Vielberg, Der Mönchsbischof von Tours im 'Martinellus'. Zur Form des hagiographischen Dossiers und seines spätantiken Leitbilds (Berlin und New York, Walter de Gruyter 2006), IX + 354 S. (= Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte; Bd. 79).
  • Mark Kurlansky (2006). Nonviolence: twenty-five lessons from the history of a dangerous idea. Modern Library chronicles book, Random House, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-679-64335-4.

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