Problems in History: Saints and Sinners



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Emily Omar

Problems in History: Saints and Sinners

Spring 2012

Short Paper Assignment

Society and Sanctity:

The Life and Times of Saint Martin of Tours

Holiness can be defined as being “devoted to the service of God” or “morally and spiritually excellent.”1 Sanctity can be defined as “the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.”2 It can be said, then, that the state of sanctity depends on the state of holiness. One who lives a life devoted to God, will be forever remembered as one who is saintly. This can be seen through the examination of Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin of Tours. Examining the story of Martin’s life, the view of what is saintly and what is holy, and how these ideas give an insight into the Merovingian society from which is was produced, is inexplicitly expressed. Through the examination of Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin of Tours, John P. Bequette’s “Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation,” and Adrian S. Hotch’s “Saint Martin of Tours: His Transformation into Chivalric Hero and Franciscan Ideal,” the ideal view of sanctity in Merovingian culture will be explored and applied to describe the changing cultural society in which the vita takes place.

Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin of Tours was composed in 394 A.D, before the death of Saint Martin in 397 A.D.3 Severus begins his vita describing Martin’s background. Martin was born to a middle class pagan family and began his life, much to his disliking, in the military as an imperial guard. Severus notes that even at a young age, Martin was aspired to the service of God. One cold winter day, at the gate of Amines, Martin came across an old naked beggar being shunned by all those who passed by. With no clothes to spare, Martin took the cloak in which he was clothed, split it in two, and clothed the beggar leaving those who witnessed the act on awe. That night Martin had a vision of Christ wearing the part of the cloak he had given to the beggar and thusly realized his call to God. Martin followed this action by receiving a baptism and leaving the military to become a solider of God.4

Martin began his journey to holiness by making his way to the Alps and then again to Italy. Along the way Martin performed a plethora of miracles such as using the power of scripture to raise the dead, such was the case with Hilary. Martin fought paganism and the devil through faith, the performing of miracles, the power of the cross, and the construction of multiple Christian churches. Martin established a monastery at Milan and became bishop of the church at Tours. Martin displayed humility, simplicity, authority, and courtesy as Bishop.5

In Severus’s Life of Saint Martin, sanctity is viewed as an open devotion to Christ and the preaching of the Christian faith through the performance and power of miracles. It is not only the simple, monastic life that defines sanctity, but the quality and quantity of miracles a person is able to perform. The Life of Saint Martin is engulfed with miracles that heal the sick, raise the dead, and convert pagans. Martin’s power in miracles is such that he need not be present to heal the sick, as was the case in his healing of the daughter of the senator Arborius through a letter. In fact, the threads from Martin’s attire had the power to ward off sickness and disease.6 In this way, Martin is very much involved in the life of the people, living a busy, open life, which seems to be the norm in the Merovingian standard of sanctity.

In John P. Bequette’s “Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation, Bequette argues that Severus’s Life of Saint Martin is a vita that illustrates Martin as an “agent of cultural transformation” who challenges Roman valor with Christian humility.7 Bequette makes this argument by discussing the three main themes of late antiquity. Bequette argues that the literary conflict between Christianity and paganism is evident in the prolong of Severus’s Life of Saint Martin when he establishes a literary contrast between pagan author intent and Christian author intent. Bequette furthers his argument through a discussion of the theme “Christianity vs. Paganism: The Religious Conflict.” He claims that Martins challenge to pagan culture is evident in his challenges to pagan religion. He furthers this argument through examples of Martin’s destroying of pagan temples and his converting of pagan to Christianity. The last theme Bequette argues is that of Christianity vs. Imperial Authority. Bequette argues that Martin’s actions as Bishop when dealing with emperor Maximus show superiority of the spiritual ruler over a temporal ruler. Benquette concludes his argument with the claim that the humility personified in Martin is the countercultural ideal of valor.8

Bequette’s argument is especially important when looking at Merovingian society at the time when Severus composed his vita. In Martin’s journey to sainthood, his main obstacles are not hunger and the degree of flagellation to perform, but rather they are the conversion of the pagan people to Christianity. Martin must prove his holiness, his sanctity, to the pagans in order to make them believers. One issue in society, it then seems, is the conflict between paganism and Christianity. This conflict is evident in the actions of Martin throughout his life. Martin destroys pagan temples and builds churches almost immediately in their place and destroys pagan symbols with the use of the symbol of the cross.9 Bequette takes the argument further and and says, “In this way Sulpicius stresses the authority of Christ over against paganism, an authority that resides in the person of Martin.”10 Martin, then, exemplifies Christianity’s victories in the battles against paganism and it can be deduced that societies population is quickly converting to Christianity as well.

In Adrian S. Hotch’s “Saint Martin of Tours: His Transformation into Chivalric Hero and Franciscan Ideal,” Hotch uses the fresco painted by Simone Martini depicting the Investiture of Saint Martin as a Knight and the vita of Saint Martin written by Severus to argue that Saint Martin was transformed to take on the role from charitable Roman soldier to Christian soldier being knighted by Christ to later attract aristocrats to the monastic order.11 Hotch argues this through the evaluation of Severus’s Life of Saint Martin, most specifically making use of Saint Martin’s early life and baptism. Hotch refers to the later production of the fresco and argues that the fresco signals the changing role of Saint Martin in order to attract aristocratic followers.12

In essence, the role of Martin changed to accommodate for a cultural change. As society changed, it became necessary to fit Martin and the story of his sanctity, into the new ideas. Martin was then expressed as a solider of Christ to the highest degree. This signals that Martin was being used to influence the role of the military and the way in which society should perceive it. It exemplifies the role of the military, bringing it to encompass a religious fight as well as the usual imperial aspects. Hotch’s argument here coincides with Bequette’s argument that there is a conflict between religion and imperial authority. Martin can then be used to inspire the people within the society, his story a solider of Christ through his service to the nation is one that can be obtained by anyone who enlists within the military.



Martin’s path to sanctity and his society put a heavy use of miracles and the combating of paganism to illustrate the holiness of Saint Martin. The ascetic, secluded life of pervious saints is no more, as Martin claims the position of bishop. Through the examination of Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin of Tours, John P. Bequette’s “Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation,” and Adrian S. Hotch’s “Saint Martin of Tours: His Transformation into Chivalric Hero and Franciscan Ideal,” it can be concluded that Merovingian society exuberated a great deal of imperial, religious, and pagan tension.

1 Oxford English Dictionary , 3rd ed., s.v. “Holiness.”

2 Oxford English Dictionary , 3rd ed., s.v. “Sanctity.”

3 Strouck, Mary-Ann, ed., Medieval Saints: A Reader (Ontario: Higher Education University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2008), 137-166.

4 Strouck, 141

5 Ibid., 144

6 Ibid., 152

7 John P. Bequette, “Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture, 13, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 56-78, http://www.ebscojost.com/ (accessed February 2, 2012).

8 Ibid., 60-62

9 Strouck, 148

10 Bequette , 61

11 Adrian S. Hotch, “St. Martin of Tours: His Transformation into a Chivalric Hero and Franciscan Ideal,” Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 50, no. 4 (1987): 471-482, http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 2, 2012).

12 Ibid., 476-480.


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