One of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages and one of the patron saints of France, Martin was born in Pannonia (now Hungary) around the year 316. His father was a pagan officer in the Roman army, and Martin joined the army for some time as well, probably as a conscript. He intended to become a Christian from an early age and enrolled among the catechumens while still a soldier. He became convinced that his commitment to Christ prevented his serving as a soldier, because he would be expected to kill the enemy in battle. After protesting against his military service, he was imprisoned, and at the end of hostilities, was discharged. According to an ancient legend, while Martin was still a catechumen, he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the Name of Christ. Martin, drawing his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. On the following night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half a cloak, and said to him, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with this garment.”
Martin became a disciple of Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, and was baptized. On Hilary’s return to Poitiers from banishment in 360, Martin rejoined him and, inspired by the monastic movement in Egypt, established a hermitage on land given to him by the bishop. Disciples joined Martin in this first monastery in Gaul, and here Martin remained as the pioneer of Western monasticism until he was elected bishop of Tours by the acclamation of the clergy and the people – and to his own dismay. As bishop he continued his ascetic life, living first in a cell near his cathedral church and later at the monastery he founded at Marmoutier, near Tours, which soon numbered some eighty monks. He founded other monasteries, seeing them as a means of achieving his mission to convert the pagans (pagani, “country dwellers”) in the rural areas. (Until that time, Christianity in Gaul, as elsewhere in the Roman empire, had largely been confined to cities and towns.) The monasticism he pioneered had great influence on the development of Celtic monasticism in Britain, where Ninian and others promoted Martin’s ascetic and missionary ideas. The oldest church in Canterbury, antedating the Anglo-Saxon invasions, is dedicated to Saint Martin, and was given early in the seventh century to Augustine of Canterbury by Ethelbert, king of Kent, to use as a center for worship and mission. A diligent missionary, Martin was also a capable pastor, making visitations about his diocese on feet, by ass, or by boat. He was a staunch defender of the poor and helpless.
The most famous of the doctrinal disputes in which Martin became involved concerned the Priscillianists, a Gnostic sect who appealed to the Western emperor Maximus after their condemnation by the synod of Bordeaux in 384, following on the condemnations of Pope Damasus and Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Priscillian, the leader of the sect, was accused at Maximus’ court of sorcery, a capital offense. Martin (and Ambrose) pleaded in Priscillian’s favor, condemning his teaching but maintaining that such matters should be dealt with by the Church and not by the emperor. This stand met with opposition from contemporaries, but the wisdom of the argument was demonstrated in that after Priscillian was executed, the first example of the death penalty for heresy, the sect increased in Spain, where it continued to exist until the sixth century.
Martin died on the eighth of November 397 at Candes and was buried at Tours three days later (some sources suggest that he died on the eleventh of November). His tomb became a much-visited shrine and a sanctuary for those seeking protection and justice. In the 1662 Prayer Book, he is commemorated on both the eleventh of November (the date of his burial) and on the fourth of July (the date of the translation of his relics and of his ordination).
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Lord God of hosts, you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Martin of Tours was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.