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Martin of Tours

(c. 316—397)


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(c.316–397),

monk bishop. One of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, Martin was born in Pannonia (now Hungary); his father was a pagan officer in the Roman army; Martin too joined the army for some time, probably as a conscript. He intended to become a Christian from an early age and was enrolled among the catechumens. He became convinced that his commitment to Christ prevented him from continuing to serve as a soldier. After making a protest that could be considered an early example of ‘conscientious objection’ to military service, he was imprisoned and, at the end of hostilities, was discharged in 357. It is to this period of his life that belongs the episode, made famous by artists, of his cutting his cloak in half to clothe a nearly naked beggar at Amiens, which episode was followed by a dream in which Christ appeared to him, wearing the cloak he had given away. He was baptized soon after, and travelled to Pannonia, Milan, and Illyricum.

On Hilary's return to Poitiers in 360 from banishment, Martin joined him and became a solitary monk at Ligugé on land given by Hilary. Here disciples joined him in this first monastery in the whole of Gaul and here Martin remained as pioneer of western monasticism until he became bishop of Tours in 372, at the acclamation of clergy and people. As bishop he continued to live as a monk, first in a cell near his cathedral and later at the monastery of Marmoutier, which soon numbered eighty monks. He also founded other monasteries, which he saw as a potent means of achieving his other pioneer activity, the conversion of the rural areas. Until now Christianity had been largely confined to the urban centres of population (the word pagani meaning primarily ‘country-men’): to Martin are attributed the destruction of heathen temples and sacred trees, the rudimentary ‘visitation’ of the outlying centres of his diocese on foot, by donkey, or by boat. His twenty-five years' episcopate was marked both by his growing reputation as a wonder-worker in healing lepers and even raising a dead man to life, and by his involvement in doctrinal disputes.

The most famous of these concerned the Priscillianists. This Gnostic sect appealed to the Emperor Maximus against the Synod of Bordeaux in 384 which condemned them, as Pope Damasus and Ambrose had done already. But Priscillian was accused of sorcery, a capital offence, at Maximus' court at Trier in 386. Martin pleaded in his favour, not defending his teaching but maintaining that such matters should be dealt with by the Church and not by the emperor. His stand met much opposition from contemporaries, but when Priscillian was executed, the first example of a death penalty for heresy, the Priscillian sect increased in Spain. It continued to exist there, a distant precursor of Catharism, until the 6th century.

In old age Martin had a presentiment of his approaching death, which was shared by others, who asked him not to leave them. In answer to this he prayed: ‘Lord, if your people still need me. I do not refuse the work; let your will be done.’ He died on 8 November 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 written by his friend Sulpicius Severus. This became one of the most popular of the Middle Ages, comparable in influence with Athanasius' Life of Antony, as a model for medieval hagiographers.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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