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Martin of Tours |
It all began with a shared cloak

Martin of Tours is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 208, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

How a Roman soldier decided to fight a different sort of battle, which one day would result in 4,000 French churches and 485 villages being named Martin

Martin of Tours - It all began with a shared cloak

Martin of Tours - It all began with a shared cloak
The Roman officer Martin, on patrol duty at Amiens, cuts his cavalry cloak in half to share it with a shivering beggar. (Detail from a 1549 painting by Amalteo Pomponio.)

Even in skeptical twenty-first-century France, the influence of a certain long-dead monk remains inescapable. More than four thousand French churches bear his name, and so do 485 villages. St. Martin of Tours is now greatly honored and much loved right around the world, of course, and this process began very early. But it was in Gaul that the renowned fourth-century holy man carried on the heroic work that established him as the first patron saint of France, and made him a central figure of devotion for Clovis and the first dynasty of Frankish kings.

Martin was born in Pannonia (present-day Hungary), about 315. His father, a native Pannonian, rose to the rank of tribune in the Roman army. Although both Martin’s parents were pagan, the boy became a devout Christian catechumen at age ten, and even aspired to take vows as a hermit. But his father “looked with an evil eye on his blessed actions,” writes Martin’s friend and biographer, the Aquitanian nobleman Sulpicius Severus; furthermore, the law required soldiers’ sons to follow the paternal profession. When Martin turned fifteen, his father reported him to the military authorities.

Thus forcibly inducted, he served about five years in the imperial cavalry. Legend has it that he did his best even there to live an ascetic life, reversing roles with his orderly, a slave, by cleaning the man’s footgear and serving his meals. Then, while his troop was fighting the Franks in northern Gaul, came the incident with which his name would henceforth be inextricably connected: the affair of the cloak.

On garrison duty at Amiens during the severe winter of 338—339, the young officer rode out on inspection one night, and at the city gate, happened to encounter an ill-clad beggar, who looked likely to freeze to death. Martin promptly removed his chlamys, the great white cloak worn by Roman lancers, and used his sword to slice it in two. Bestowing one half upon the shivering man, he rode on, clad in the remainder.1

That night in a dream, he beheld the Lord Jesus wearing half of the sundered garment, and heard him say, “Martin, still a catechumen, covered me with his cloak.” The vision prompted him to seek baptism that Easter. However, Severus writes, after his baptism, Martin believed he must no longer fight and kill, and so applied for discharge from the army.

When his commandant (probably the emperor Julian) understandably discounted his request as simple cowardice, Martin countered with an offer to walk before his troop into battle on the morrow, completely unarmed. His offer was accepted–but the battle never happened. The Franks unexpectedly decided to negotiate, and Severus, for one, was in no doubt what power had arranged the truce.

Martin next sought out Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, a man known as “the Athanasius of the West” for his skilled and stubborn opposition to Arianism. These two might seem curious partners–Hilary, the sophisticated intellectual, and Martin, the passionate, ascetic ex-soldier–but they were matched in ardent faith and missionary zeal. Martin supported Hilary’s anti-Arian campaign. Hilary gave Martin some land at Locociagus (Ligugé), then four miles outside Poitiers, where in 360 he founded the first Gallic monastery to operate on a recognized rule.

Ligugé was the first of three establishments considered integral to the development of early western monasticism. The second appeared fifty years later, on the barren, snake-ridden little island of Lérins (now St. Honorat) in the Mediterranean, off present-day Cannes. Its founder, a Gallo-Roman aristocrat named Honoratus, had studied the work and rule of Basil of Cappadocia, and Lérins is described by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “the nursery of a long line of scholars and bishops.”2 (This monastery operated until 1788.)

The third and vital influence was provided by John Cassian, who came from Constantinople on an embassy to Pope Innocent I, and settled in southern Gaul. A keen observer of humankind, Cassian had lived as an ascetic in Egypt, and thought deeply about developments there. He found Gallic monastic habits deplorably lax and self-indulgent, tendencies he resolved to avoid in the two monasteries he founded in 415 near Marseilles, one for men and one for women.

Like Basil in the east, Cassian aimed to balance the extreme asceticism of much eastern practice by means of communal living and practical work. He taught that work, whether labor in the fields or copying manuscripts in the scriptorium, is also of spiritual benefit. (Monkish labor would, not unnaturally, prove to be a source of other benefits, too.) Cassian’s own great works were his Conferences and his Institutes. Written to provide detailed instructions for his own monasteries, these became the basis for many western rules, including that of Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century. (See also sidebar page 167.)

As for Martin, he was able to stay at Ligugé for only twelve years. Upon the death in 372 of the bishop of Tours, the townspeople overwhelmingly elected Martin as his successor. When he refused, they tricked him into coming to town, and in effect hijacked him. Bowing to necessity, he appointed a successor at Ligugé, and, to the great joy of the citizenry, moved to Tours. His episcopal colleagues, most of them scions of substantial Gallo-Roman families, were not so enthusiastic. Severus says many objected to his “despicable countenance,” his “mean” clothing, and his “disgusting” hair.

The Gallic bishops had been presiding over a great blossoming of Christianity among the urban and literate members of Gaul’s population, writes W. H. C. Frend, in Town and Country in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1980). However, most country folk still worshiped the pagan gods and celebrated their festivals. To this situation, in the valleys of the Loire and the Seine, the new bishop Martin directed his efforts.

He must have been an energetic and convincing evangelist. Severus records miracle upon miracle, recounting how Martin brought dead men back to life, routinely healed illnesses, and directed the weather, permanently banishing hailstorms from one district. He expelled demons (one of which, in Severus’s pungent description, exited “by means of a defluxion of the belly, leaving disgusting traces behind him”). He demolished heathen temples, sometimes wielding the ax himself and sometimes persuading the worshipers to do the job.

One pagan devotee offered to cut down a sacred pine tree if the bishop would stand in the line of fall. Martin agreeably did so, but when he raised his hand in blessing, the tree obediently changed direction. Thus through miracle, eloquence or prayer (or a combination of the same), churches and monasteries rapidly replaced pagan shrines and temples. By the end of the fourth century, Frend writes, the common people of much of Gaul were Christian.

Martin died at an outlying village in November 397, provoking an unseemly altercation over his body. Henri Gheon, in his biography St. Martin of Tours (New York, 1946), describes how a crowd from Poitiers, headed by Ligugé monks, passionately vied for possession with a mob of Tourainians, headed by monks from Marmoutier, Martin’s later-established monastery.3 Each claimed the honor of providing a gravesite. Each set guards on the building where the body lay.

But either the men of Tours were craftier, says Gheon, or St. Martin lulled the men of Poitiers to sleep. The Tourainians sneaked their saint out through a window and headed down the Vienne and Loire Rivers toward home. At dawn, the Poitiers contingent discovered the subterfuge–too late. Thousands of mourners of every age and class thereupon came to follow the barge along the towpath, and St. Martin was buried in his episcopal city, in the Cemetery of the Poor (his own preference, it was claimed).

Over his tomb, successive chapels and basilicas were built, and several times burned by Norman raiders. The body itself, often moved temporarily to safer locations,4 remained intact until 1323, when King Charles the Fair had the head removed and enshrined in a special reliquary. In the sixteenth century, however, a Huguenot army swept into Tours, burned the relics, and melted down the reliquaries. Only two small pieces of St. Martin’s physical remains survived, although this apparently did not diminish his miraculous powers.

Neither did it diminish his influence upon the rulers of France for upwards of a thousand years, nor the devotion of the common people in perpetuity. The beloved saint, it is said, kept right on healing every sort of illness from deafness to gout. His shrine at Tours became part of the great pilgrimage route from Compostela in Spain to Rome, and his cult spread far. In England alone, observes B. J. Kidd in A History of the Christian Church, no fewer than 151 pre-Reformation dedications to St. Martin attest to his popularity there. Moreover, he is a saint of undivided Christendom, recognized in both West and East as “equal to the apostles.”

Severus’s miracle-packed biography, which circulated widely, was doubtless part of the cause, as was his hero’s adoption by Merovingian royalty. But what chiefly recommends St. Martin of Tours is the uncontestable fact that he stands as the ideal missionary bishop: single-hearted, fearless, and conspicuously holy.

This is the end of the Martin of Tours category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 208, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Martin of Tours from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at