Nov 112013


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