Friday, November 11, 2022

Saint Martin of Tours: The Man and His Feast

Anthony van Dyck, “Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak,” 1621

In the modern course of our lives, November 11 passes unnoticed, except with a flag-waving nod to our veterans. But it was not always so, since it is the feast of one of the Church’s first recognized confessors, the great Saint Martin of Tours.

Martin (ca. 316-397) was a military brat, the son of a Roman tribune. Born in Hungary, his father was transferred to Pavia, Italy when Martin was still young. Martin became a catechumen at the age of ten (against his parents’ wishes) and was drafted into the army at fifteen, even though he wanted to be a hermit. When his regiment was transferred to Amiens in Gaul, he saw a poor beggar shivering in the cold at the gates of the city. Moved with pity, Martin tore his military cloak in two, giving the man half (the Roman army made you pay for half of your uniform, so Martin gave the beggar the half that he had paid for). That night Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream with the half-cloak and said, “Martin the catechumen hath clothed Me.”
Martin was baptized soon afterwards, and when his unit was called to fight against the Gauls, he refused on the grounds that he was now a soldier of Christ and not of Caesar. After being accused of cowardice, he boldly promised to participate in the battle completely unarmed and to penetrate enemy lines, so confident was he of God’s protection. The next day, however, the barbarians surrendered before the battle began. Martin’s first biographer attributes this sudden change to divine intervention: God was rewarding him for his pious courage and faith, and He spared His servant the trauma of watching others die a violent death. [1]
Freed from military service, Martin went to Poitiers to become a disciple of St. Hilary, a great foe of Arianism. He then returned to Lombardy to visit his parents, where he was mistreated by the Arian Bishop of Milan, Auxentius (imagine being treated badly by a heretical bishop!). After learning that Hilary had been exiled, Martin sought shelter on the island of Gallinaria, and when Hilary was restored to office, Martin joined him and was given permission to be a hermit. The ex-soldier’s holiness, however, attracted others, and soon he found himself in charge of a monastery. [2]
Martin spent ten years in monastic bliss, but it was not to last, for the people of Tours wanted him to become their bishop. Apparently, he was tricked into leaving his monastery on the ruse that a dying person needed his help, only to be dragged to the cathedral and forcibly ordained. [3]  A later legend claims that he tried to hide from his adoring fans by hiding behind a bush but was betrayed by a honking flock of geese. The geese, as we will see later, have been paying for their treachery ever since.
Martin labored tirelessly for his flock (the human variety). When he fell sick of a fever in the village of Cande, he prayed for freedom from his dying body. Hearing this, his disciples pleaded: “Father, why wilt thou go away from us? unto whom wilt thou bequeath us in our sorrow?” Moved by their words, Martin prayed: “Lord, if I be still needful to Thy people, I refuse not to work.” The traditional Roman Breviary, meditating on this chapter of the Saint’s life, exclaims, “Oh how blessed a man was Bishop Martin; he neither feared to die, nor refused to live.” [4]
Martin performed several miracles during his lifetime, chief among them raising three people from the dead. He died on November 8, 397 and was buried on November 11.
“Martin” is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war. How appropriate that this Christian soldier bearing such a name should use his weapon and part of his combat fatigues not to wage war but to exercise charity; it is as if he beat his own sword into a plowshare. And how appropriate that this soldier of Christ and not of Caesar won a military victory for his country without shedding a drop of blood. 
Martin was not the first person in history with this moniker, but he is responsible for its popularity as both a first and last name. Regarding the latter, one of the most common surnames in the world means “son of Martin” in various languages—the English and Scandinavian Martinson, the Scottish McMartin, the Spanish Martinez, the Romanian Martinescu, the Italian Martinelli, etc. The Irish Kilmartin means “church of [Saint] Martin” and the Scottish Gilmartin “servant of Martin,” while the English Merton is a variation of Martin.
Saint Martin’s Bird, the Hen Harrier
Besides persons, the Saint has lent his name to a number of different things.
What is now called an Indian summer was formerly known as a Saint Martin’s summer.
Saint Martin’s flower (Alstroemeria ligtu pulchra) is a lily found in Peru, and a Saint Martin’s pear once referred to a pear that grew ripe around his feast. [5] The herb of Saint Martin (Sauvagesia erecta) is a native of tropical America and the West Indies, formerly used for eye problems and bowel disorders. It is fitting that Martin should have an herb named after him, for there is a curious legend that during his stay on Gallinaria, he used to eat a poisonous plant called hellebore. When the poison would put him on the brink of death, he would cure himself by praying!
In the skies above, a Saint Martin’s bird (Circus cyaneus) in English, German, French, and Middle Dutch is a hen harrier, a Eurasian bird of prey that feeds on free-range fowl (like geese?) Among passerine or perching birds, a martin is a member of the swallow family (Hirundinidae), like the American purple martin. The origins of this name are uncertain, but my suspicion is that the forked tail of some species reminded the faithful of Martin’s divided cloak.
Speaking of which, the Saint’s cape (cappa in Latin) was kept and revered by the kings of France as one of their most precious relics, and so a special oratory was built for its safekeeping. This prayerful cloakroom, as it were, became known as “the chapel” (cappella), while the guardians of the cloak were called cappellani or “chaplains.” Similarly, the French word for hat, chapeau, is so called because it originally referred to a chapel head-covering. And the Italian phrase a cappella or “in the chapel” signifies singing without musical instruments because a cappella music was originally written for chapels or sacred spaces too small for orchestras or a pipe organ.
A trace of Martin’s cult may even be found on the national flag of France. After the overthrow of the old regime, the French National Convention officially adopted the tricolor flag of three red, white, and blue vertical bars. The flag was to represent aspects of the French Revolution: red and blue were the colors of Paris, where the Revolution began, while white, an “ancient French color,” was added to nationalize the symbol. But why are red and blue the colors of Paris? In order to honor the city’s two most important patron saints. Red is the color of the martyr Saint Denis, and blue the color of Saint Martin’s cape.
The Free French flag, used by the French Resistance during World War II
Martin’s Impact Gone Awry
Not all thoughts about the feast or the Saint have been positive. In Part 2 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Poins inquires about the notorious glutton Falstaff by asking: “And how doth the Martlemas, your master?” (II.ii.36). Falstaff is called “the Martlemas” for he is the very embodiment of indulgent merrymaking, his fat and gout-ridden body bearing ample witness to his wolfish ways.
And what is true of food is true of drink. As we will see later, Martin of Tours is a patron saint of winemakers and penitent drunkards. We are not certain, but either this patronage or perhaps the excesses of the feast may be behind two curious expressions. “Martin drunk” refers to “drinking oneself sober before moving about” (with water and black coffee?) [6], while “Saint Martin’s evil” is a rare and obsolete term for drunkenness. [7]  In real life, Saint Martin and his monks were ascetical, never taking wine except in case of illness. [8]
Another obsolete use of the Saint’s name is to refer to a mark, dupe, or sucker as a “martin,” probably in playful allusion to his being “tricked” by Christ into parting with half his cloak. [9]
Other negative connotations are more random. The parish of St Martin-le-Grand in London overlooked a market known for its cheap goods, especially imitation jewelry. As a result, “Saint Martin’s chains” and “Saint Martin’s rings” were the kinds of trinkets that made your skin turn green, while “Saint Martin’s stuff” and “Saint Martin’s ware” signified poor quality, the sixteenth-century equivalent, if you will, of “Made in China.” [10]
Because of his reputation as a gift-giver, Martin is the patron saint of children and the poor. Because he divided his cloak, he is the patron of wool weavers. Because he was a pious soldier, he is the patron saint of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, and because he was a pious mounted soldier, he is a patron of horses and the calvary. Martin is the patron saint of France because of his ministry in that country, and he is the patron of geese despite their ratting him out.
Saint Martin of Tours is also considered a patron saint of winemakers, vintners, vine growers, and innkeepers. Some legends credit him with spreading viticulture throughout the Touraine region. A page was lifted from Greek mythology and Saint Martin (rather than Aristaeus) was credited with the invention of pruning after watching a goat nibble on foliage. Some have also claimed that it was the holy bishop of Tours who introduced the Chenin blanc grape to the region. And it does not hurt that in many regions Martin’s Day coincides with the first wine of the season: the Czech equivalent of Beaujolais nouveau, for instance, is called Svatomartinské víno.
Whatever the reason, there are several wines named after the Saint as well as beers (when you are a patron saint of innkeepers, you ipso facto become a patron saint of beer). Finally, Saint Martin is invoked as a patron of penitent drunkards—apparently, impenitent drunkards must find another celestial sponsor.
Finally, no one is certain when or where the “king of cocktails,” the martini, was invented. The three main theories are that it was named after: 1) Martini and Rossi vermouth, 2) a bartender in San Francisco, or 3) the town of Martinez, California. Whatever its origins, there would be no “Martini” or “Martinez” had there been no saint called Martin to make the name popular in Christian lands. 
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day,” 1565-68
Martlemas Merriment
In many communities, Saint Martin’s Day (also known as Martinmas or Martlemas) marked the end of autumn and the beginning of winter in terms of the chores to be done. The day thus served as a welcome break before a seasonal transition.
Martin’s generosity with the beggar was contagious, inspiring a host of open-handed customs on his feast. In Estonia, children go door to door trick-or-treat style begging for goodies on Saint Martin’s Eve; oddly, the most-prized donation used to be a turnip. A similar custom is observed in Austria and Germany, but with two additions: the children carry Saint Martin’s paper lanterns, and they go a-caroling, singing Martinilieder or St Martin’s Eve songs. And like Halloween, there was a hard-and-fast rule: honor the merry-makers, or expect a prank in retaliation. In Belgium, jack-o-lanterns made out of beetroot are used instead of paper, and in the Netherlands, the lanterns are carved out of sugar beet. Finally, throughout central Europe, bonfires were lit on the vigil of the feast, perhaps in memory of Our Lord shivering in the cold, waiting for Martin’s kindness.
In Nuremberg, Germany and the surrounding areas, children cannot wait for Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6, so they put their boots near the front door on Saint Martin’s Eve in order to find them miraculously filled with sweets the next morning. Sometimes the Saint makes a personal appearance, majestically clad in his bishop’s vestments and riding a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by a mysterious figure. Pelzmartin or Pelzmärtel (“furry Martin” or “spanking Martin”) is clad in animal hides and carries a sack and a rod. The rod is for punishing naughty children, and the sack can serve double duty—to carry gifts or abduct unruly whippersnappers. In some places, Pelzmartin replaced Saint Martin and showed up at the house alone to criticize or praise the children and distribute presents.
How did a saint as generous as Martin of Tours become the victim of such distortions? No good deed goes unpunished.
Der Pelzemartel, 1850
Martinmas was a time for parades, plays, and fairs where farm laborers were hired. In Ireland’s County Wexford, fishermen were sure to take the day off, for on one November 11, Saint Martin walked upon the waves and told them to return to the harbor. The stubborn Irishmen who ignored his warning perished in a storm later that afternoon.
But Martinmas was not all fun and games. In the Middle Ages, it was customary to slaughter swine on or before November 11 in preparation for winter. The custom led to several proverbs. In Spain, when predicting that someone would get his comeuppance or meet his Maker, folks would say A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín (“Every pig has its Saint Martin’s Day”); in England, the equivalent was “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog.” Perhaps it was this deadly foreboding that led to an old superstition: if you stood at the back of the church during Saint Martin’s Mass, you could see halos around the heads of those who were going to die within the next year.
Martlemas has been associated with feasting almost from the beginning. Before the season of Advent developed, it was common in parts of Europe to observe a fast prior to Christmas. Because this “Saint Martin's Lent” lasted between Martinmas and Christmas Eve, Saint Martin’s Eve became a kind of minor Mardi Gras. Even after the advent of Advent, the merriment continued.
In the Rhineland, roasted suckling pig is the main course; in the Swiss canton of Jura, the Repas du Saint Martin includes everything but the oink of the recently butchered pigs. (Every hog has its Martlemas!). The Irish connect the Martinmas pig to their beloved Saint Patrick, who is reputed to be Martin’s nephew. According to legend, Patrick remained at Martin’s monastery of Marmoutier until his uncle died. To honor his memory, Patrick cooked up a pig every year on the anniversary of his passing.
If there were cattle to be slaughtered and salted for the winter, it was done by or on November 11 and called “Martinmas beef.”
But the most popular main course was roasted goose. From the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, folks looked forward to their Martinmas fowl. In Germanic countries, the goose is eaten with sauerkraut. In Sweden, it is stuffed with apples and prunes for flavoring (which are discarded before serving); the finished goose is accompanied with cinnamon apples. And if goose was too dear a choice for the budget (it is still a relatively expensive meat), then the next best thing was roasted duck or hen.
Saint Martin’s goose indirectly inspired a cherished American custom. Since the Reformation could not persuade Protestant regions like Holland to abandon their annual consumption of roasted goose on November 11, when the Pilgrims stayed there prior to their departure to America, they became acquainted with the tradition. It was only natural for them, then, to want geese for their own Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth. They were able to find several wild geese, but because they could not catch enough, they supplemented their banquet with a strange bird unique to the North American continent. It was in this way that the Martinmas goose became the Thanksgiving turkey.[11]
And then there are the leftover parts. By and large our ancestors were not ones to waste, and Martinmas was no exception. Scraps of bird or beast made their way into a vitamin- and protein-rich broth (like the Scandinavian Svartsoppa or “black soup”) or various puddings (blood, suet, white, or black). As an old ditty has it:
It fell about the Martinmas time,
And a gay time it was then O
That our gudewife had puddings to make,
And she baited them in the pan O.[12]
For dessert, St. Martin’s horse seems to have provided the main inspiration. Germany and Poland each have their own version of St. Martin’s croissants, which look like horseshoes.
Finally, it is not a feast to Saint Martin unless it is conducted in the spirit of Saint Martin. According to an old English proverb, you must ask Saint Martin to dine with you when have goose or you will not get a goose the next year. And to ask Saint Martin to dine is “to share your goose with someone who has none, as Martin did his cloak.” [13]  The same idea animated a custom of sharing a whole ox with the rest of the community.
The Armistice of November 11, 1918 began to end the so-called war to end all war
Armistice Day
In modern calendars, November 11 is Armistice Day or Veterans’ Day. On November 11, 1918, Germany signed an agreement to cease the hostilities of the First World War (the Treaty of Versailles would come later). The ceasefire took effect at 11 a.m. that day. Why this stipulation? The European belligerents were drawing from their Christian heritage, since in some countries the daytime festivities of Martinmas commenced at 11:11 a.m., the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month. Nor was it unusual to make peace on Saint Martin’s Day. Previous treaties signed on November 11 include: the Treaty of Granada (1500), the Treaty of Zstiva-Torok (1606), the Canandaigua Treaty (1794), and the Treaty of Sinchula (1865). [14]
In any event, it is fitting that the soldier who laid down his arms for Christ is the Saint who silenced the guns of the Great War.
There are, of course, non-martyr Saints that long predate Martin of Tours (e.g., Joachim and Anne), but Martin was one of the first to be venerated liturgically in the Roman rite. The Collect and Postcommunion for Martinmas in the 1962 Roman Missal may be found in the earliest sacramentaries that we possess, [15] and the cult of St. Martin caught on so quickly that there was a church dedicated to him in England before the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury. The Church in Gaul revered Martin and Hilary of Poitiers so much that their names were added to the Communicantes of the Canon. [16]  And in the Divine Office, the eighth-century hymn Iste Confessor, which is used for all confessors in the traditional Roman liturgy, was written specifically with one confessor in mind: Martin. The third verse, which describes the Saint healing that diseased bodies who come to him, is a reference to Saint Martin’s shrine, which was a popular pilgrimage site for the sick until first the Huguenots and then the Revolutionaries destroyed it.
Given the antiquity of this liturgy and the Saint behind it, attending a traditional Mass on Martlemas is a great privilege and joy. And who knows: you may even get a sneak peek of who will be appearing in the so-called “Irish Sports Page”—the Obituary.

This article appeared in The Latin Mass Magazine 31:3 (Fall 2022) on pages 34-38. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

[1] Sulpicius Severus, On the Life of Saint Martin, 4.
[2] Léon Clugnet, “Saint Martin of Tours,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917,
[3] Butler's Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Saints, ed. Rev. F.C. Husenbeth, Vol. IV (Saint Bonaventure Publications, 1997), p. 189.
[4] The Roman Breviary, trans. John, Marquis of Bute (London: Willaim Blackwood and Sons, 1908), p. 1139.
[5] “Martin, n.1, II.5,” Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth OED).
[6] “Martin, n.2,” OED. Thomas Nashe was a pamphleteer who coined the term. Besides the Saint, he may have had in mind: the martin (bird); a “martin ape” (a kind of monkey, the identity of which remains unknown); or one of Nash’s rivals, Martin Marprelate.
[7] “Saint Martin, n.,” Compounds, OED.
[8] Severus, 10.
[9] “Martin, n. 4,” OED.
[10] “Martin, n.1,” I.2 and “Saint Martin, n.,” Compounds, OED.
[11] Francis X. Weiser, The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), p. 271.
[12] Florence S. Berger, Cooking for Christ (National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1945), p. 110.
[13] Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, Feast Day Cookbook (David McKay Company, Inc., 1951), p. 140.
[14] Cynthia Bertelsen, “The Ancient Story Behind Veterans’/Armistice Day, or, The Significance of Saint Martin of Tours,”
[15] Unfortunately, they do not appear in the 1970/2002 Roman Missal.
[16] Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources, translated and revised by William Storey and Ni'els Rasmussen (Pastoral Press, 1986), p. 74.

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