Martin of Tours
He was a Roman soldier who laid down his arms to become a soldier of Christ (Miles Christi). This is what emerges from the Vita of Martin of Tours († 397), which Sulpicius Severus wrote down at the end of the 4th century AD. But who is this Martin, who today is regarded as the 'Apostle of Gaul', a pioneer of Western monasticism and the most famous saint of the Latin West?
Sulpicius Severus (Sulp. Sev. Vit. Mart. 2), whose works form the main sources on Saint Martin, tells us that Martin came from Pannonia and grew up in Italy as the son of a pagan military tribune. At the age of 15, at his father's request, he was a soldier in the cavalry under the emperors Constantius II (317-361) and Julian 'Apostata' (360-363). The most famous deed of St. Martin, which forms the basis for numerous regional customs, also dates from this time, namely the dividing of the cloak. During this act, the soldier encountered a needy person at the city gate of Amiens who begged for alms. But the catechumen Martin had nothing else to give except his cloak (Capa), which he promptly divided with his sword and gave one half to the beggar.
It was only later, at the age of eighteen, that Martin received baptism and then remained a soldier for two more years until, on the eve of a battle, he asked the emperor personally to be allowed to leave military service. Thus he had told the emperor that he was a soldier of Christ who was not allowed to fight (Sulp. Sev. Vit. Mart. 4), for which the emperor accused him of cowardice. However, in order to prove that his request was based on a purely Christian motive, Martin had offered to be the first to pass through the enemy ranks in the coming battle, without weapons or armour. But this did not happen, as the enemies had already surrendered by divine grace before the battle without a fight, which Severus attributed directly to Martin's offer.
After his military service, Martin spent some time in Poitiers, where he met the bishop Hilarius (c. 315-369), in whose service he briefly placed himself. When Hilarius fell out of favour with the emperor and was banished to the East, Martin withdrew to Milan, where he devoted himself to asceticism. However, shortly afterwards, in the course of the confessional disputes of the 4th century, he was driven out by the Arian bishop Auxentius and fled to the island of Gallinara. Later, around 360, when Bishop Hilarius was pardoned and returned to Poitiers in Gaul, the ascetic Martin also decided to go there, where he retired to a monastery (Ligugé) near the city. There he became known as a miracle worker and holy man (Sulp. Sev. Vit. Mart. 7) before he himself was consecrated Bishop of Tours in 370/71. As such, he founded a monastery on the Loire (Marmoutiers), which is one of the oldest European monasteries, and during the 380s he stood up for the followers of Priscillianus, who were considered heretics and faced persecution by the usurper Maximus (383-388). He also promoted the proclamation of the Gospel and the development of ecclesiastical organisation in Gaul in the 4th century AD, which was still influenced by paganism.
The picture of Saint Martin that Sulpicius Severus draws in his Vita initially shows the ideal of an ascetic monk who, even in the episcopate, adhered to the associated way of life. The influence of the monastic vitae of the East (Vita Antonii), which preceded the Latin hagiography, becomes visible. However, it is precisely this ideal of asceticism that forms a point of contention in the Vita, which would have led some laymen and bishops to speak out against Martin. As Severus reports, these would have said that Martin was not worthy of the episcopate because of his unsightly appearance, his poor clothes and his unkempt hair (Sulp. Sev. Vit. Mart. 9).
Yet it is precisely this image of the charismatic and ascetic bishop that seems to account for the success of Martin, who is considered the first non-martyr Saint of the West. His cult was steadily advanced by his influential disciples (Paulinus of Nola) and the episcopal successors of Tour. As early as the 5th century AD, Tour was the most important place of pilgrimage in Gaul, where Marin's relics had been brought after he died on a missionary journey in Candes. From there, the cult spread to the other regions of the West, where churches were increasingly founded in the name of the former soldier in the 6th century AD. Even in post-Roman Gaul, the devotion to Martin remained unbroken, and he had already been elevated to patron saint of the Frankish kings by King Clodwig (466-511). Today, Martin is generally considered the patron saint of the French as well as the Hungarians, soldiers, merchants and beggars, and many more. His day of remembrance, which is celebrated by the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Coptic churches, is mostly on 11 November.
Kevin Grotherr, M.A. (University of Hamburg)