Martin of Tours, also known as Martin the Merciful or
"The Glory of Gaul," was born to pagan parents
around 316 in what is now Hungary. His father was an officer in the
Roman military, and when Martin was very young the family was
transferred to Pavia, Italy. It was there that Martin was
introduced to Christianity, which had become popular among the
soldiers since the conversion of Constantine.
Against his parents' will, Martin took lessons at the local church.
By the time he was 12 years old, he had decided that he wanted to be a
hermit. Before he could fulfill that dream, though, he was required to
join the army at 15. His first position was in a ceremonial unit
that acted as the emperor's bodyguard and was rarely exposed to
combat. Then he was assigned to garrison duty in Gaul.
While in Gaul, he was approached during bitterly cold weather by a
half-naked beggar. Martin cut his military cloak in two and gave half
to the starving man. That night, he dreamed that he saw Jesus wrapped in the beggar's half of the cloak. Until then, he
had been waiting to be baptized. The dream cleared up any lingering
indecision about whether or not he really wanted to be a Christian, and thereafter Martin was baptized as soon as possible.
When Martin was about 20 years old, Gaul was invaded by barbarians.
The army tried to send Martin to fight them, but Martin refused,
saying, "I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve
Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going to fight, but I
am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful
for me to fight." The emperor accused Martin of being a coward
and threw him into prison. That night, the barbarians demanded an
armistice and Martin was released from prison.
After leaving the army, Martin became a disciple
of Hilary of Poitiers
. Hilary was a major opponent of the
, which denied the full deity of Christ and had the approval of the emperor Constantius
. Martin stayed with Hilary,
and was assigned the duty of performing exorcism
s, until he had a
dream that called him home. He went to visit his parents (who at that
point were living in what is now Yugoslavia
), and during his stay
with them he converted his mother to Christianity. He also converted
a group of bandits who assaulted him on the road home. Shortly
thereafter, the devil appeared to Martin in human form and told him
that no matter where he went or what he did, the devil would oppose
him. The devil haunted him for the rest of his life, appearing to him
in many forms.
While he was visiting his parents, Martin's vehement anti-Arian
rhetoric led to his being exiled. On his return to Italy, he found
that Hilary had also been exiled. Martin retreated to a monastery
near Milan, but he was soon driven out by the encroaching Arians.
He fled to a deserted island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and lived there
as a hermit until 360, when Hilary was allowed to return to Gaul.
Martin returned with Hilary to Gaul, where he continued to live as a
hermit, as he had dreamed of doing when he was a boy. Hilary gave
Martin some land, and he was joined there by other hermits. Soon the
first monastery in Gaul had been founded. It survived until the
French Revolution. Martin lived there for ten years, preaching and
performing miracles. He is said to have healed lepers and raised a
man from the dead. He also had a great many visions, but even his
contemporaries often ascribed them to his habit of lengthy
fasts and other austerities.
Around 371, the see of Tours chose him as its third bishop. He
was reluctant to take the office, and only did so when the people
tricked him into visiting a sick woman in the city. They then took
him to the church, where his scruffiness failed to impress the
bishops who had come to assist at the election. But the people were
determined to have Martin as their bishop, and finally they overcame
the objections of the other bishops.
His new duties did not change his living habits. He settled outside
the city, where he was joined by other hermits. Gradually, a new
monastery was formed. It was called Marmoutier, and it is still there
today. Martin did not like to leave his monastery, but he ended up
going to Trier several times. The emperors had taken up residence
there, and Martin went to plead the interests of his Church or to ask
pardon for condemned people. In one case, when he went to ask for
lenience for a prisoner, an angel woke the emperor to tell him that
Martin wanted to see him. The prisoner was granted a reprieve.
In 384, the gnostic heretic Priscillian and six of his companions
were condemned to death by the emperor Maximus. The bishops who
had found them guilty pressed for their execution. Martin argued
that the secular power had no authority to punish heresy, and that
excommunication was an adequate sentence. He refused to leave Trier
until the emperor promised to reprieve them. But as soon as he left,
the bishops persuaded Maximus to break his promise. Priscillian and
his followers were executed. It was the first time that heresy had
been punished by death. Martin retaliated by
excommunicating the bishops, but took them back into communion in exchange for the emperor's promise to stop persecuting the remaining followers of Priscillian.
As the years went on, Martin was plagued more and more often by his
private devil. The devil was able to take many
shapes, and enjoyed taking the form of gods or goddesses of Greek and
Roman mythology. Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Minerva were
In 397, although he had had a vision telling him that he would die
soon, he went to Candes to settle a quarrel amongst the clergy
there. He restored peace, and was preparing to return to his
monastery when he fell ill. He called his brothers to him and told
them that he was dying. Then he said, "Leave me, my brothers, so
that I may fix my eyes on heaven rather than on earth and set my
soul on the path which leads to the Lord."
He died on November 8, 397, and was buried three days later in the
Cemetery of the Poor (as he had requested). Later, his relics were
transferred to the basilica of Tours, which became
a scene of pilgrimages and miracles until 1562, when
the cathedral and relics were destroyed by militant Protestants.
Martin was the first non-martyr to receive the cultus of a saint.
He serves as patron of alcoholics, armorers,
beggars, cavalry, coopers, domestic animals, France, geese,
girdlers, glovers, horses and horsemen, infantrymen,
millers, innkeepers, soldiers, tailors, wine growers and wine
merchants (because his feast falls just after the vendange), and
wool-weavers (because he divided his cloak). He is invoked against
drunkenness, poverty, storms, and ulcers. His memorial is celebrated on November 11th. Many churches have been named in his honor, including Saint Martin in the Fields in London.