The life of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of France, soldiers, and beggars, reaches over the greater part of the 4th century, that period during which the Church, no longer a proscribed society, found herself for the first time free to pursue the evangelization of the Roman Empire. This was the work of more than one generation, and was by no means brought to fulfillment by the end of Martin’s life. The old pagan faith had deep roots there, and had not been fully eradicated when the bishop closed his eyes for the last time in the year 397. The gods of Rome still had their shrines, though these were crumbling; in the schools of oratory the professors of rhetoric still taught the arts of declamation; the last of the classical Latin poets still composed their odes and eclogues, and the pageantry of the caesars lived yet in the courts of Ravenna and the new Rome on the Bosporus. Yet for all this show of activity, continued out of habit and custom, a clear-eyed witness of the century could see nonetheless that the spirit which had animated the children of Romulus in their first youth had abandoned their descendants. Fewer and fewer men of real ability found fulfillment in ascending the scale of offices which had satisfied the ambitions of their ancestors. The law courts, the army, and the administrative posts were no longer lodestones to which genius of any kind was inevitably attracted. The Catholic Church was, in the midst of inexorable decay, the only thing with any strength and life.
Martin was born in the district of Szombathely, on the Hungarian plain. His was a military family; the name Martinus signifies one dedicated to the war god Mars. His father held the rank of tribune, and acquired after his own term of service an estate in northern Italy where Martin came of age. The chief account of Martin’s life, the Vita Sancti Martini written by his friend Sulpicius Severus, informs us that his parents harbored strong prejudices against the novel superstition to which the Emperor Constantine had recently granted his patronage. The boy’s adoption of the new faith occurred against the wishes of his family (“invitis parentibus ad ecclesiam confugit”) and in spite of the paternal profession of arms to which he found himself unwillingly assigned. Martin had longings of his own, and had no interest in service under the Roman eagle. Possessed by no wish to serve two masters, he resigned his commission when opportunity presented itself, giving the reason for his resignation with the plainest clarity to the Emperor: “Christi ego miles sum: pugnare mihi non licet.”-“I am a soldier of Christ: the trade of war cannot be mine.” So he left the life of the army behind him, and enlisted under a new standard.
The Church in Gaul was at this time still in its formative stages, and the commanding presence within it was then the great bishop Hilary of Poitiers, acknowledged as the “Hammer of the Arians” for his steady combat against the heresy of that name. To Hilary Martin offered himself as a disciple, and, the nature of his spiritual gifts being evident, he received his first appointment in the Church as an exorcist. His biographer records several encounters with devils in the course of Martin’s life. Popular history remembers him principally as a great champion of the monastic rule and an equally great evangelist, but from Sulpicius’ Vita one gathers the impression that his contemporaries regarded him no less highly for his steady warfare and numerous victories over the powers of Satan, which were as real to him as they were to the authors of the New Testament. Equally real to him was the companionship of the Saints: the English writer E.I. Watkin writes of a conversation between Martin and certain friends of his, during which “He admitted that Agnes and Thecla had been with him-that in fact they paid him frequent visits, as did the apostles Peter and Paul.”
Along with his master Bishop Hilary, Martin found himself subject to exile and ill usage more than once during this stage of his life. The position of the Catholic Nicene party in much of the empire was then precarious, as the Arian heretics enjoyed the favour of the court, and had seized for themselves many of the high bishoprics. The representatives of orthodoxy during these years-Athanasius in the east, Hilary in the west-were often driven from place to place, and had not where to lay their heads. The accounts of this portion of Martin’s career represent him wandering in Illyria, in northern Italy, and in the province of his birth, troubled on every side, perplexed, persecuted, but never utterly forsaken or cast down. His abundant sufferings and steadfastness in the midst of them make us wonder occasionally how someone of Martin’s character found so little to like in the soldier’s occupation; for he appears to have been of a common nature with that centurion in the Gospel who confessed himself to be “a man under authority”. Martin was a man of the same stripe-ready to command and to be commanded equally. Never was he eager to claim for himself any high position-one legend speaks of him going into hiding in a barn rather than be consecrated as bishop-yet when the popular voice once forced the crozier and mitre upon him, he proved as energetic in the propagation of the new faith as he did in the reprobation of the old. He had no sophistication about him, and appears to have felt that the best argument against the ancestral stocks and stones of pagan superstition was simply to break or burn them. He would have agreed with the poet of the Song of Roland who sang the great line “Paiens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit”, even if his personal code of pacifism likely would have kept him from fighting alongside Roland and Oliver and Turpin de Rheims at Roncevaux. He served France in his own way-even before there was a France to speak of.
Before Martin came to Gaul there were few men in that place who had adopted the life of monks already common in the Roman provinces of Egypt and Asia. In Martin the West found its St. Anthony. The monasteries he founded, many of them, lived on in vigour long past the fall of other things: orders from Rome would grow slowly less frequent, the tribute sent to Caesar would diminish to a trickle, and at last to nothing, while over the borders of Gaul drifted men who did not wear the toga, and spoke with difficulty the language of Virgil and Tacitus. These men brought with them their own customs, good and evil, and, mixing with the stock of Roman Gaul, between them raised up a new kingdom on the wreckage of the old. And as this new creation came to life, the followers of St. Martin and their followers after them stood close at hand to instruct, to build up, to baptize and to lead, slowly and uncertainly, this resurrected world into the knowledge of Him “Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”