Friday, November 18, 2016

Saint Martin

It's November, time to talk about Saint Martin.  Between the election and Veterans' Day it's easy to lose track, but his feast day was November 11, and that day was an important one for medieval people, as rents and the like were often due then (at the end of the harvest).  In parts of Belgium they still have parades in his honor, and some children get presents from him, rather than having to wait for Saint Nicholas almost a month later.

As I noted earlier, although Gaul (France) by the late sixth century had a lot of saints, many of these are not quite as historical as one would like (and had not been revered until sixth-century bishops conveniently discovered their burial places).  But Martin (d. 397) is a historical figure, probably about the first historical saint of Gaul.

He originally came from what is now part of Hungary and was then part of the Roman Empire.  He appears to have converted to Christianity as a youth, just as Christianity was becoming widely tolerated and indeed encouraged in the Empire, but he was still expected to join the army, as all sturdy lads were supposed to do.  He traveled great distances with the troops, getting as far as Amiens, in northwestern France.

Here, according to legend, he had his most famous experience.  Riding along on a wet, cold night, wrapped up in his military cloak, he spotted a poor, ragged beggar.  Feeling sorry for him, Martin cut his cloak in two to share, as depicted centuries later in El Greco's famous painting (where, incidentally, Martin doesn't look anything like a Roman soldier).

To his surprise and understandable shock, the beggar turned into Christ.  This got his attention, as it would certainly have gotten mine, and Martin decided to give up the army life for the religious life.

Monasticism at this time was just starting in the West, although it had been around in the eastern Mediterranean for a century.  Martin founded the first known monastery in Gaul in Tours.  He also became bishop of Tours; the story is that he didn't want to become bishop and tried hiding so they couldn't make him, but the geese among which he was hiding gave him away by honking.  He appears to have been a somewhat disturbing bishop, who followed a rough and simple life rather than the more comfortable life many of his contemporaries chose.

After his death, at least three churches in Tours all claimed precedence over the others on the grounds that Martin loved them best:  Marmoutier, the monastery he founded (the name is a variation of Martini monasterium, Martin's monastery); the cathedral where he had been bishop; and the basilica outside of town where he was buried.  Pilgrims would rub his stone sarcophagus to get saint-dust, until actual holes started appearing in it.

His cape (or at least the half that remained) became an important relic in its own right.  Around the year 900, in the aftermath of Viking invasions, the ancestors of the French Capetian dynasty became titular abbots of Martin's monastery and took the cape as their special possession.  Hugh Capet, first king of the dynasty in 987, got his nickname from the cape.

Martin is the patron saint of beggars, of clothing makers, and of geese-keeping.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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