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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

Martin of Tours (316-397)

Who was Martin of Tours?

Saint Martin of Tours (Latin: Martinus), (born 316 or 317; died November 11, 397) was a native of Sabaria, Pannonia. His father was a senior officer in the Roman army. Martin was named after Mars, the god of war, meaning `the brave, the courageous'. The family moved to Pavia in Italy. When he was 15, the son of an officer, he had to join the army himself. He was stationed in Gaul and later became a monk in the region of Poitiers.

While Martin was still a soldier he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed that Jesus came to him and returned the half cloak Martin had shared with him. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me." When Martin woke his cloak was restored.

The miraculous cloak was preserved as a relic, and entered the relic collection of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. The Latin word for "short cloak", cappella in Latin, was extended to the people charged with preserving the cloak of St. Martin, the cappellani or "chaplains" and from them was applied to the royal oratory that was not a regular church, a "chapel". The dream had such an impact on Saint Martin that he was baptised the next day and became a Christian. He decided to leave the army and became a monk near the city of Tours.


Martin worked for the conversion to Christianity of the populace, making many preaching trips through western and central France. In the course of this work he became extremely popular, and in 371 became bishop of Tours; he refused to live in the city and instead founded a monastery for his residence a short distance outside the walls. The monastery, known in Latin as the 'Larger Monastery' or Maius monasterium became known as Marmoutier in later French.

St. Martin died on 8 November 397 at Candes, Tours, France of natural causes; by his request, he was buried in the Cemetery of the Poor on 11 November 397; his relics rested in the basilica of Tours, a scene of pilgrimages and miracles, until 1562 when the cathedral and relics were destroyed by militant Protestants; some small fragments on his tomb were found during construction excavation in 1860.

St. Martin's Day

On November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in Flanders, the Catholic areas of Germany and the Netherlands and in Austria participate in lantern processions. Often, a man dressed as Saint Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession. The children sing songs about Saint Martin and about their lantern. It is traditional to eat goose on this day, for according to legend, Martin hid in a stable filled with geese to avoid being made bishop. The noise made by the geese betrayed his location to the people who were looking for him.

In recent years the lantern processions have become widespread even in Protestant areas of Germany and the Netherlands, despite the fact that the Protestant Church doesn't recognize Saints. Moreover, the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was born on St. Martin's feast day, and was named after the saint according to common custom. In Erfurt, Germany, St. Martin's Festival celebrates the lives of both St. Martin of Tours and Martin Luther. In eastern Belgium, children commonly receive presents from Saint Martin on November 11 instead of from Saint Nicholas on December 6 or Santa Claus on December 25.


Many churches in Europe are named after Saint Martin. Martin of Tours is the patron saint against impoverishment, against poverty, alcoholism, beggars, Burgenland, cavalry, equestrians, France, geese, horse men, horses, hotel-keepers, innkeepers, quartermasters, reformed alcoholics, riders, soldiers, tailors, vintners, wine growers, and wine makers. In Christian art, St. Martin of Tours is identified by a globe of fire, a goose, a man on horseback sharing his cloak with beggar, or a man his cutting cloak in half.

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