Following in the lines of Jerome and Athanasius, Sulpicius Severus composed a biography of St. Martin of Tours. Concerned more with miracles and encounters with the devil rather than a complete description of the monastic life, Life of Martin of Tours is a glimpse into the nature of Christianity of the 4th Century. Life of Martin of Tours gives a very brief view of Martin’s life before he entered into the service of God. Upon entering a church at the age of 10, he became so enamored that he told his military father of his intent to become a churchman. Being the son of a tribune, his wish would be granted only after a tour of duty in the army of the empire. It is in the service of Julian that Martin truly learns of his destiny. Late winter in the town of Amiens, Martin was approached by an almost nude beggar. Taking his sword and cutting his cloak in half, Martin gave part of his clothing to the beggar. The beggar appeared that night in a dream to Martin with the voice of God. According to the dream, since he had helped the lowest element in society, he had really helped Jesus. It is interesting to note in this section the variety of the terms used synonymous, in the present day, with God.
The time in which Martin was in the army is the same time that the Arian controversy is dividing the Christian populace. Severus meant to show the many faces of the Lord in composing this work, thereby showing both his own and Martin’s adherence to orthodoxy. When Martin is called to into an impending battle with the barbarians in Gaul, he asks for his discharge from none other Julian himself, at the time still Caesar. Because of his devotion to God, Martin believes that is wrong to be involved in a battle. Julian, called a tyrant by Severus, attributes this to cowardice and orders that he be forced to fight. Martin, strong in his faith in God, decrees that he shall appear on the battlefield unarmed and will remain untouched because of protection from God. Taken as a sign of Martin’s favor with Jesus, the barbarians come to ask for a peace before the next day’s battle. This sign is taken by all to symbolize the legitimacy of Martin’s request to be relieved of duty. Martin enters the service of Hilarius, bishop of the city Pictava. It is here that Martin is given the title of exorcist. After attaining his first title, Martin is warned through a dream to visit his parents who are involved in acts of heathenism.
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Wandering off track in the mountains, the party is set upon by a group of bandits. Despite impending death or harm, Martin talks the robber into converting to Christianity in order to save his soul. According to Severus, the bandit was so impressed by Martin that he spared his life and in fact related the story for the book. Again, like Jerome’s Life of Malchus, the spiritual strength is emphasized over the notion of physical prowess. Continuing on his way to his parent’s home, Martin encountered the devil in the guise of a man, the first of many encounters with the prince of darkness. The devil warns Martin of his presence at every turn, something that does not frighten him at all because of his faith. In this same chapter, again worthy of note, that Arianism is brought back into the story, although directly stated this time. Martin is harassed by Auxentius, the founder of Arianism. Severus then goes about describing the physical harm and eventual banishment of Martin from Milan. This section is another proclamation of guiltlessness on the parts of both Martin and Severus himself. It is these next chapters in the book that deal almost exclusively with the execution of miracles and dodging of the devil.
Following Peter Brown’s theory of the role of the holy man, Martin does not deny the power of the Lord in front of Emperor Maximus, giving the goblet to the presbyter instead. Martin saves several people from various ailments as well, these acts too in accordance with this notion. A very unflappable man, Martin was not easily swayed by much outside of Jesus’ promise of salvation. Severus states that no one saw him enraged, angry, or even exhibiting emotion even through the various slander campaigns laid out before him. Like many other monastic figures of the period, after the townsfolk harassed him, they soon turned to Martin for assistance. The only true thing missing from Martin’s complete fixation is mention of dealings as a mediator. Martin probably did act as a mediator, Severus more than likely did not mention these proceedings focusing more on the spectacular. Life of Martin of Tours illustrates many aspects of the evolving empire. The most significant, perhaps, is the almost subordination of the emperor to the church, a commonly cited factor in the collapse of the Western Empire. The people of the day truly believed in a Christianity that, today, would get one called fanatical at the least, locked away at worst. .The overriding emphasis, however, is not a power struggle. It is a affirmation of the power that the holy man exercised over the populace.
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None other than Sulpicius Severus’ LIFE OF MARTIN OF TOURS