St. Martin of Tours Bishop; born at Sabaria (today Steinamanger in German, or Szombathely in Hungarian), Pannonia (Hungary), about 316; died at Candes, Touraine, most probably in 397.
In his early years, when his father, a military tribune, was
transferred to Pavia in Italy, Martin accompanied him thither, and when
he reached adolescence was, in accordance with the recruiting laws,
enrolled in the Roman army. Touched by grace at an early age, he was
from the first attracted towards Christianity, which had been in favor
in the military camps since the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
His regiment was soon sent to Amiens in Gaul, and this town became
the scene of the celebrated legend of the cloak. At the gates of the
city, one very cold day, Martin met a shivering and half-naked beggar.
Moved with compassion, he divided his coat into two parts and gave one
to the poor man. The part kept by himself became the famous relic
preserved in the oratory of the Frankish kings under the name of “St.
Martin, who was still only a catechumen, soon received baptism, and
was a little later finally freed from military service at Worms on the
Rhine. As soon as he was free, he hastened to set out to Poitiers to
enroll himself among the disciples of St. Hilary, the wise and pious
bishop whose reputation as a theologian was already passing beyond the
frontiers of Gaul. Desiring, however, to see his parents again, he
returned to Lombardy across the Alps. The inhabitants of this region, infested
with Arianism, were bitterly hostile towards Catholicism, so that
Martin, who did not conceal his faith, was very badly treated by order
of Bishop Auxentius of Milan, the leader of the heretical sect in Italy.
Martin was very desirous of returning to Gaul, but, learning that the
Arians troubled that country also and had even succeeded in exiling
Hilary to the Orient, he decided to seek shelter on the island of
Gallinaria (now Isola d’Albenga) in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
As soon as Martin learned that an imperial decree had authorized
Hilary to return to Gaul, he hastened to the side of his chosen master
at Poitiers in 361, and obtained permission from him to embrace at some
distance from there in a deserted region (now called Ligugé) the
solitary life that he had adopted in Gallinaria. His example was soon
followed, and a great number of monks gathered around him. Thus was
formed in this Gallic Thebaid a real laura, from which later developed
the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé. Martin remained about ten
years in this solitude, but often left it to preach the Gospel in the
central and western parts of Gaul, where the rural inhabitants were
still plunged in the darkness of idolatry and given up to all sorts of
gross superstitions. 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.
When St. Lidorius, second Bishop of Tours, died in 371 or 372, the
clergy of that city desired to replace him by the famous hermit of
Ligugé. But, as Martin remained deaf to the prayers of the deputies who
brought him this message, it was necessary to resort to a ruse to
overcome his resistance. A certain Rusticius, a rich citizen of Tours,
went and begged him to come to his wife, who was in the last extremity,
and to prepare her for death. Without any suspicions, Martin followed
him in all haste, but hardly had he entered the city when, in spite of
the opposition of a few ecclesiastical dignitaries, popular acclamation
constrained him to become Bishop of the Church of Tours.
Consecrated on 4 July, Martin brought to the accomplishment of the
duties of his new ministry all the energy and the activity of which he
had already given so many proofs. He did not, however, change his way of
life: fleeing from the distractions of the large city, he settled
himself in a small cell at a short distance from Tours, beyond the
Loire. Some other hermits joined him there, and thus was gradually
formed a new monastery, which surpassed that of Ligugé, as is indicated
by the name, Marmoutier (Majus Monasterium), which it has kept
to our own day. Thus, to an untiring zeal Martin added the greatest
simplicity, and it is this which explains how his pastoral
administration so admirably succeeded in sowing Christianity throughout
Touraine. Nor was it a rare occurrence for him to leave his diocese when
he thought that his appearance in some distant locality might produce
some good. He even went several times to Trier, where the emperors had
established their residence, to plead the interests of the Church or to
ask pardon for some condemned person. His role in the matter of the
Priscillianists and Ithacians was especially remarkable. Against
Priscillian, the Spanish heresiarch, and his partisans, who had been
justly condemned by the Council of Saragossa, furious charges were
brought before Emperor Maximus by some orthodox bishops of Spain, led by
Bishop Ithacius. Martin hurried to Trier, not indeed to defend the
Gnostic and Manichaean doctrines of Priscillian, but to remove him from
the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. Maximus at first acceded to his
entreaty, but, when Martin had departed, yielded to the solicitations
of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded.
Deeply grieved, Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius. However,
when he went again to Trier a little later to ask pardon for two rebels,
Narses and Leucadius, Maximus would only promise it to him on condition
that he would make his peace with Ithaeius. To save the lives of his
clients, he consented to this reconciliation, but afterwards reproached
himself bitterly for this act of weakness.
After a last visit to Rome, Martin went to Candes, one of the
religious centers created by him in his diocese, when he was attacked by
the malady which ended his life. Ordering himself to be carried into
the presbytery of the church, he died there in 400 (according to some
authorities, more probably in 397) at the age of about 81, evincing
until the last that exemplary spirit of humility and mortification which
he had ever shown.
The Church of France has always considered Martin one of her greatest
saints, and hagiographers have recorded a great number of miracles due
to his intercession while he was living and after his death. His cult
was very popular throughout the Middle Ages, a multitude of churches and
chapels were dedicated to him, and a great number of places have been
called by his name.
His body, taken to Tours, was enclosed in a stone sarcophagus, above
which his successors, St. Britius and St. Perpetuus, built first a
simple chapel, and later a basilica (470). St. Euphronius, Bishop of
Autun and a friend of St. Perpetuus, sent a sculptured tablet of marble
to cover the tomb. A larger basilica was constructed in 1014 which was
burned down in 1230 to be rebuilt soon on a still larger scale. This
sanctuary was the center of great national pilgrimages until 1562, the
fatal year when the Protestants sacked it from top to bottom, destroying
the sepulcher and the relics of the great wonder-worker, the object of
The ill-fated collegiate church was restored by its canons, but a new
and more terrible misfortune awaited it. The revolutionary hammer of
1793 was to subject it to a last devastation. It was entirely demolished
with the exception of the two towers which are still standing and, so
that its reconstruction might be impossible, the atheistic municipality
caused two streets to be opened up on its site.
In December, 1860, skilfully executed excavations located the site of
St. Martin’s tomb, of which some fragments were discovered. These
precious remains are at present sheltered in a basilica built by Msgr.
Meignan, Archbishop of Tours, which is unfortunately of very small
dimensions and recalls only faintly the ancient and magnificent cloister
of St. Martin.
On 11 November each year the feast of St. Martin is solemnly
celebrated in this church in the presence of a large number of the
faithful of Tours and other cities and villages of the diocese.
LÉON CLUGNET (Catholic Encyclopedia)