Today is the feast day of St Martin of Tours (316 – 397), one of the best known and best loved of the saints. Countless holy places, towns, institutions, and geographic locations are named for him, and he is patron of many (including Buenos Aires). In popular lore he is remembered primarily for his act of dividing his military cloak in half so that he could give half to a freezing beggar. His life is recorded in a special volume by his contemporary Sulpicius Severus, although this is not a biography in the conventional sense. I will focus here on two well-known events in his life, then shift gears to talk about how this day, also called Martinmas, is celebrated in various countries.
Martin was born in 316 AD in Savaria in the Diocese of Pannonia (now Szombathely in Hungary). His father was a senior officer in the Imperial Horse Guard, a unit of the Roman army, later stationed at Ticinum (now Pavia), in northern Italy, where Martin grew up. As the son of a veteran officer, Martin at fifteen was required to join the cavalry. Around 334, he was stationed at Samarobriva in Gaul (now Amiens in France). It is likely that he joined the Equites catafractarii Ambianenses, a heavy cavalry unit. His unit was mostly ceremonial and did not face much combat. It was at this time that the famous incident of the cloak occurred.
The story comes from Sulpicius Severus:
Accordingly, at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
The part kept by himself became the famous relic preserved in the oratory of the Merovingian kings of the Franks at the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, the supposed relic of St. Martin’s miraculous cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini) was carried by the king even into battle, and used as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. The cloak is first attested in the royal treasury in 679, when it was conserved at the palatium of Luzarches, a royal villa that was later ceded to the monks of Saint-Denis by Charlemagne, in 798/99.
According to Sulpicius Severus, he served in the military for only another two years (which scholars now dispute), but was released because of the following:
In the meantime, as the barbarians were rushing within the two divisions of Gaul, Julian Cæsar, [also called Julian the apostate] bringing an army together at the city of the Vaugiones, began to distribute a donative [advance pay] to the soldiers. As was the custom in such a case, they were called forward, one by one, until it came to the turn of Martin. Then, indeed, judging it a suitable opportunity for seeking his discharge–for he did not think it would be proper for him, if he were not to continue in the service, to receive a donative–he said to Cæsar, “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God: let the man who is to serve thee receive thy donative: I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.” Then truly the tyrant stormed on hearing such words, declaring that, from fear of the battle, which was to take place on the morrow, and not from any religious feeling, Martin withdrew from the service. But Martin, full of courage, yea all the more resolute from the danger that had been set before him, exclaims, “If this conduct of mine is ascribed to cowardice, and not to faith, I will take my stand unarmed before the line of battle tomorrow, and in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the cross, and not by shield or helmet, I will safely penetrate the ranks of the enemy.” He is ordered, therefore, to be thrust back into prison, determined on proving his words true by exposing himself unarmed to the barbarians. But, on the following day, the enemy sent ambassadors to treat about peace and surrendered both themselves and all their possessions. In these circumstances who can doubt that this victory was due to the saintly man? It was granted him that he should not be sent unarmed to the fight. And although the good Lord could have preserved his own soldier, even amid the swords and darts of the enemy, yet that his blessed eyes might not be pained by witnessing the death of others, he removed all necessity for fighting. For Christ did not require to secure any other victory on behalf of his own soldier, than that, the enemy being subdued without bloodshed, no one should suffer death.
Martin was subsequently freed of his military service and is, therefore, often claimed to be the first conscientious objector to military service; and is their patron. Paradoxically, because of his military service, he is also patron of those in the military. Then again, he is also the patron saint of wine growers and reformed alcoholics.
Martinmas marks an important turning point in the agricultural year. In pre-industrial Europe roughly 80% of the population (depending on region) lived and worked on the land, directly or indirectly. Therefore, the agricultural cycle dominated life. Martinmas closed the arable year – harvests were in and the winter wheat had been planted. It also closed the pastoral year, for the most part. Sheep could winter over, and cows still needed to be milked. But, the bulk of animals were slaughtered because they could not be fed over the winter, and because the year was designed such that new animals were born in the spring, raised over the summer and early autumn, and so were mature by Martinmas. Farm workers often ended their annual contracts at Martinmas because there was not enough work for them over winter. They would, therefore be paid off. If you put all of this together you have a festive day ripe for celebration. People had money and free time; barns were full and fresh meat abounded.
Martinmas festivals were, and still are, common all across Europe. Their actual nature varied considerably from region to region but certain themes are quite widespread. First, there is an emphasis on children and children’s processions because Martin has an association with love of children. In many countries children carry lanterns in procession, and are often given sweet treats. In fact, at one time in some regions Martinmas was more like our current Christmas for children with presents and the like.
Second, particularly in areas with vineyards, this was the time to try the new wines – which may be how St Martin gets his association with wine. Martinmas has an air of ripeness and fruitfulness as the autumn wanes. Third, with so much fresh and freshly salted meat available it was time for a party. In many rural areas farm workers ate meat on special occasions only. The commonest meat for Martinmas across Europe is goose. The legend has it that the goose celebrates the fact that when Martin was elected bishop of Tours he was anxious to avoid the job and so hid in a barn. But the geese there, by their noise, gave his location away. However, the obvious agricultural explanation for the choice is that geese were sent to market at this time of year. I already covered goose for Michaelmas (29 Sept), so I will refer to another tradition – Martinmas beef.
Martinmas beef is really just another version of corned beef, and can be made in many ways. In England sweet spices predominate. I have a cheaters’ version which I have used over the years which works well. I poach a corned beef in the usual manner, but I add cloves, allspice, and mace to the poaching water instead of the usual pickling spices. You will be surprised at how richly flavorful the result is. I also poach potatoes in the water towards the end. I then use a little roux to thicken some of the poaching water to make a gravy. Mashed winter squash with nutmeg makes a good side dish.
You can also make a baked version if you prefer. In which case set the beef in an oven casserole with diced onion, cloves, allspice, and mace. Pour over a cup each of white wine and white wine vinegar. Bake, covered, at 300°F/150°C for about 3 hours. Thicken the juices to make a gravy and serve with potatoes and carrots (or winter vegetable of your choice).