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Saint Martin and the Search for Holiness | Régine Pernoud | Prologue to Martin of Tours

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November 11 is now a red-letter day on the French civil calendar: in 1918 that date marked the end of the slaughter that was the First World War. But even before France was called France, that date, the eleventh of November, had been a date on the calendar used throughout Christendom because it commemorated the burial at Tours of the amazing individual whom we call Saint Martin.

He was an amazing and even a paradoxical man: he never accomplished what he had hoped to do, and yet his accomplishments surpassed all possible expectations. To begin with, this man, who had always tried to go unnoticed, enjoyed extraordinary popularity. He wanted to be a hermit, to flee the world and devote himself to ascetical practices; instead he was constantly surrounded by people, during his lifetime and after his death: the pilgrimage shrine of Saint Martin in Tours was once the most important after the three great pilgrimage sites of Christianity, Jerusalem, Rome, and, later on, Saint James of Compostela. He is remembered as a soldier, and indeed he was one, albeit entirely against his will. He had refused to be ordained a priest, considering himself unworthy, and yet he became a bishop. He had fled the world and sought a life of seclusion, but instead his biography was written while he was still living!

Thanks to those who discerned the extraordinary qualities in this rather reticent, unassuming man who resolutely practiced poverty, we know the story of his life. It spans the fourth century, in which the Church became free at last to live above ground, only to be torn by dissension so widespread that it almost brought her to ruin.

There are not many individuals whose biographies were written during the fourth century, especially during their lifetime. This was the case, however, with Martin of Tours, thanks to his friend Sulpicius Severus, who survived him long enough to record for us also the story of his death. And so we have the unusual good fortune of possessing a contemporary document to tell us about a man who, throughout his life, sought only to live among his peers, in obscurity.

In Search of Holiness

Sulpicius Severus was handsome, young, and rich. He lived in Bordeaux, a particularly prosperous town in the fourth century, where he received an outstanding education; he practiced law there and excelled in his profession because of his great eloquence. His family belonged to that Gallo-Roman aristocracy which enjoyed the favor of the Roman emperors because their power depended upon it. Thus, in the region that would later be called Aquitaine, there were several families that owned enormous estates and a large number of slaves and were extremely wealthy. The province was crossed by navigable waterways, which guaranteed abundant commerce. Bordeaux at that time had the reputation of being an "intellectual" city; like Toulouse, it had quite a number of citizens who had conformed completely to the customs and tastes characteristic of the Roman Empire. In the region surrounding Toulouse archeologists have found as many busts and sculptures from the imperial era as they have in the vicinity of Rome–artwork intended to ornament the villas where these opulent families lived.

Sulpicius Severus, being a lawyer, had made a name for himself in "upper-middle-class" circles while he was still a very young man. His reputation is inseparable from that of the man who would later be called Paulinus of Nola, with whom he was bound by ties of friendship. Paulinus, a lawyer like Sulpicius, came from an even richer family than his and was likewise an avid man of letters. It is easy to imagine the two friends going together to the thermal baths or attending the literary gatherings of the day, where people discussed the poetry of Virgil or Ovid, or perhaps the eloquence of Cicero. Paulinus, who was highly valued by Emperor Valentinian II, had been appointed for a time as governor of Campania, but he had resigned from his official duties and returned to Bordeaux so as to lead there a life of elegant leisure, as was the fashion then on the banks of the Garonne River.

Now a new factor came into his life around the year 389 (Paulinus was about thirty-six years old at the time): he was touched by the gospel. The Christian religion, which had been spreading freely for a good sixty years–the Edict of Milan promulgated by Constantine, which ended the persecutions, dated back to the year 313–would thoroughly transform that pleasure-seeking aristocrat. In the year 390, together with his wife, Therasia, he received baptism. His encounter with the Christian faith may have been fostered by the great sorrow he had experienced at the death of a beloved brother.

Soon afterward, Sulpicius in turn was touched by grace. He had been married only a little while, and perhaps his motherin-law, Bassula, who was a fervent Christian, had had some influence upon him. He received baptism, but his wife died shortly after, and he found himself disowned by his father, who could not abide his conversion. Moreover, Sulpicius himself was preparing to follow the example of his friend Paulinus, who had begun to divest himself of all his property, following the evangelical counsel of poverty to the letter. Of what he inherited from his wife, Sulpicius kept only a small lot, a kind of temporary lodging, where from then on he would welcome a number of other Christian converts who wished to lead a life of prayer and asceticism. The place was called Primullacum in Latin, and it has been identified with the little city of Alzonne on the road from Toulouse to Carcassonne, not far from Brain, in the Aude in Languedoc. Sulpicius must have taken up residence there in 394 or a little earlier.

It was there, too, that he received the letters that Paulinus wrote to him. For example, the one in which he expresses, in the rather emphatic language of that era, his admiration for his young friend:

But you, my most beloved brother, were converted to the Lord by a greater miracle [than I]. For you were closer to your prime, you were winning greater eulogies, the burden of your inheritance was lighter, yet you were no poorer in store of wealth; you were still prominent in the fame of the forum which is the theatre of the world, and you held the palm for glory of eloquence. Yet with a sudden urge you shook off the slavish yoke of sin, and broke the deadly bonds of flesh and blood. Neither the additional riches brought by your marriage into a consular household nor the easy tendency to sin after your marriage [i.e., after he was widowed] which followed your celibate youth could draw you back from the narrow entrance to salvation, from the steep path of virtue to the soft, broad road trodden by many. [1]
And Paulinus continues, recalling the friendship that united them in their youth:
What shall I render to the Lord for this grace in addition to all his bounty to me? (Ps 115 [116]:12). For through this grace He has joined you to me not only as a most beloved friend in our earlier life in the world, but also as an inseparable companion and partner in the spiritual brotherhood of His affairs.... [T]hat intimate friendship of our earlier life, when we still loved the things which we now reject in Christ, marked us out for each other in the love of Christ. [2]
Paulinus had returned with his wife to Campania, where he settled at Nola, a little town founded of old by Saint Felix, who was buried there. From then on Paulinus and his wife led a very austere life, dwelling in the same house but living as brother and sister, and devoting themselves to the needs of the pilgrims and the poor. Paulinus had already been ordained a priest in Barcelona, and in 409 he was appointed bishop of Nola. In another one of his letters to Sulpicius he writes: "You revealed the increase of your inheritance amongst the saints. This you did by your wholesome disposal of the burdens of this world, for you have purchased heaven and Christ at the price of brittle worldly goods," [3] Thus the correspondence between the two friends leaves no doubt as to their complete conversion, which led both of them to give away their fortunes. It is said that even Sulpicius, who retained his ownership of Primuliacum, only did so in order to host friends there, as well as his mother-in-law, with whom he maintained close ties of friendship and whose fervent faith was evident. He experienced scruples, however, on that account, and Paulinus reassured him:
And why should you lament that you on the contrary are still unhappily clinging to the slimy dregs of hell below, just because from your letter you appear not to have sold one petty estate? Your forfeiture of your present right even to that farm is equivalent to selling it, so that by the greater fruits of your faith you showed to God a twofold dedication ... for the goods you have kept back are possessed by the church which you serve. [4]
Sulpicius Severus, while in retirement on his estate, received many visitors, and that is how he heard about the bishop of Tours, Martin.

As for Paulinus, even before his conversion he had been in contact with Martin. Later on Sulpicius would tell of the circumstances. "A man named Paulinus, who was afterwards to be an example to all, had begun to suffer from acute pain in one eye and a fairly thick film had by now grown over the pupil. Martin, by touching the eye with a fine paintbrush, restored it to its former state and at the same time banished all the pain." [5] This probably took place during a journey that Martin made to Vienne, and it is conjectured that the two friends must have had an ongoing discussion about this cure.

But this was certainly not the only reason that prompted Sulpicius to go to see Martin. Plainly, the reputation of the bishop of Tours had aroused his curiosity even before that. " 11 had previously heard accounts of his faith, his life, and his powers and burned with the desire to know the man himself", he writes. "I therefore undertook as a labor of love a pilgrimage to see him." Indeed, in those days the journey from the regions along the Garonne River to the banks of the Loire River was long. Traveling from north to south was easy through the Saône and Rhône valleys, but that was not the case in the western territories that drain into the Atlantic Ocean; furthermore, the Roman roads crossed France from east to west.

"At the same time," Sulpicius relates, I was all on fire to write his life." His natural talents would find expression in a literary work that was perfectly suited to his deep feelings. He decided, therefore, to make the journey. "You would never credit the humility and kindness with which [Martin] received me on that occasion. He congratulated himself and praised the Lord because I had thought so highly of him that I had undertaken a long journey especially to see him." And he tells of his embarrassment when Martin invited him to share in a meal, and "it was he who fetched the water for me to wash my hands and, in the evening, it was he who washed my feet. Nor had I the courage to remonstrate or resist. I was so overcome by his authority that I would have felt it impious to do anything but acquiesce."

No doubt this visit made a profound impression on Sulplcius. He found in Martin just as saintly an individual as he had been said to be. "But all his talk while I was there was of the necessity of renouncing the allurements of the world and the burdens of secular life in order to follow the Lord Jesus freely and unimpeded." And the following lines suggest even more the extent to which the conversations with Martin must have affected his guest: indeed, Martin held up Paulinus to him as an example! "He quoted as an outstanding example in our own day the case of his Excellency Paulinus, whom I mentioned earlier. He had abandoned immense wealth to follow Christ and was almost alone in our times in fulfilling the evangelical counsels. 'There,' Martin kept exclaiming, 'there is someone for you to follow."' We can surmise that his words elicited an emotional response from his interlocutor! Martin drew from the decision of Paulinus a lesson for his generation: "For a rich man with great possessions, by selling all and giving to the poor, had illustrated Our Lord's saying, that what is impossible to do is in fact a possibility."

After that memorable encounter, Sulpicius was able to undertake what would be the great accomplishment of his life: writing the life of Martin of Tours. It took nothing less than the call of the gospel and the power of the faith to draw together two men who were so dissimilar, from such different social backgrounds.


[1] Ancient Christian Writers Series, Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola, trans. and annot. by P. G. Walsh, vol. 1 and 2 (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1966-1967). The citation is from vol. 1, Letter 5, par. 5, pp. 56-57.

[2] Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 11, par. 1, 5, pp. 90, 93.

[3] Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 1, par. 1, pp. 29-30.

[4] Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 24, par. 1, p. 51.

[5] As indicated in the Acknowledgments, all quotations from the writings of Sulpicius Severus are quoted from the translation by F. R. Hoare, in The Western Fathers: Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles and Germanus of Auxerre (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954). Reprinted by kind permission of Sheed & Ward (U.K.), an imprint of the Continuum International Publishing Group.–TRANS.

Régine Pernoud, a renowned French archivist and historian, is among the greatest medievalists of our times, and the success of her books has helped to bring the Middle Ages closer to us. Among her numerous works are Those Terrible Middle Ages!, The Crusaders, and Women in the Days of the Cathedrals.

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