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Martin of Tours, also known as Martin the Merciful or "The Glory of Gaul," was born to pagan parents around 316 in what is now Hungary. His father was an officer in the Roman military, and when Martin was very young the family was transferred to Pavia, Italy. It was there that Martin was introduced to Christianity, which had become popular among the soldiers since the conversion of Constantine.

Against his parents' will, Martin took lessons at the local church. By the time he was 12 years old, he had decided that he wanted to be a hermit. Before he could fulfill that dream, though, he was required to join the army at 15. His first position was in a ceremonial unit that acted as the emperor's bodyguard and was rarely exposed to combat. Then he was assigned to garrison duty in Gaul.

While in Gaul, he was approached during bitterly cold weather by a half-naked beggar. Martin cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the starving man. That night, he dreamed that he saw Jesus wrapped in the beggar's half of the cloak. Until then, he had been waiting to be baptized. The dream cleared up any lingering indecision about whether or not he really wanted to be a Christian, and thereafter Martin was baptized as soon as possible.

When Martin was about 20 years old, Gaul was invaded by barbarians. The army tried to send Martin to fight them, but Martin refused, saying, "I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight." The emperor accused Martin of being a coward and threw him into prison. That night, the barbarians demanded an armistice and Martin was released from prison.

After leaving the army, Martin became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary was a major opponent of the Arian heresy, which denied the full deity of Christ and had the approval of the emperor Constantius. Martin stayed with Hilary, and was assigned the duty of performing exorcisms, until he had a dream that called him home. He went to visit his parents (who at that point were living in what is now Yugoslavia), and during his stay with them he converted his mother to Christianity. He also converted a group of bandits who assaulted him on the road home. Shortly thereafter, the devil appeared to Martin in human form and told him that no matter where he went or what he did, the devil would oppose him. The devil haunted him for the rest of his life, appearing to him in many forms.

While he was visiting his parents, Martin's vehement anti-Arian rhetoric led to his being exiled. On his return to Italy, he found that Hilary had also been exiled. Martin retreated to a monastery near Milan, but he was soon driven out by the encroaching Arians. He fled to a deserted island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and lived there as a hermit until 360, when Hilary was allowed to return to Gaul.

Martin returned with Hilary to Gaul, where he continued to live as a hermit, as he had dreamed of doing when he was a boy. Hilary gave Martin some land, and he was joined there by other hermits. Soon the first monastery in Gaul had been founded. It survived until the French Revolution. Martin lived there for ten years, preaching and performing miracles. He is said to have healed lepers and raised a man from the dead. He also had a great many visions, but even his contemporaries often ascribed them to his habit of lengthy fasts and other austerities.

Around 371, the see of Tours chose him as its third bishop. He was reluctant to take the office, and only did so when the people tricked him into visiting a sick woman in the city. They then took him to the church, where his scruffiness failed to impress the bishops who had come to assist at the election. But the people were determined to have Martin as their bishop, and finally they overcame the objections of the other bishops.

His new duties did not change his living habits. He settled outside the city, where he was joined by other hermits. Gradually, a new monastery was formed. It was called Marmoutier, and it is still there today. Martin did not like to leave his monastery, but he ended up going to Trier several times. The emperors had taken up residence there, and Martin went to plead the interests of his Church or to ask pardon for condemned people. In one case, when he went to ask for lenience for a prisoner, an angel woke the emperor to tell him that Martin wanted to see him. The prisoner was granted a reprieve.

In 384, the gnostic heretic Priscillian and six of his companions were condemned to death by the emperor Maximus. The bishops who had found them guilty pressed for their execution. Martin argued that the secular power had no authority to punish heresy, and that excommunication was an adequate sentence. He refused to leave Trier until the emperor promised to reprieve them. But as soon as he left, the bishops persuaded Maximus to break his promise. Priscillian and his followers were executed. It was the first time that heresy had been punished by death. Martin retaliated by excommunicating the bishops, but took them back into communion in exchange for the emperor's promise to stop persecuting the remaining followers of Priscillian.

As the years went on, Martin was plagued more and more often by his private devil. The devil was able to take many shapes, and enjoyed taking the form of gods or goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Minerva were particular favorites.

In 397, although he had had a vision telling him that he would die soon, he went to Candes to settle a quarrel amongst the clergy there. He restored peace, and was preparing to return to his monastery when he fell ill. He called his brothers to him and told them that he was dying. Then he said, "Leave me, my brothers, so that I may fix my eyes on heaven rather than on earth and set my soul on the path which leads to the Lord."

He died on November 8, 397, and was buried three days later in the Cemetery of the Poor (as he had requested). Later, his relics were transferred to the basilica of Tours, which became a scene of pilgrimages and miracles until 1562, when the cathedral and relics were destroyed by militant Protestants.

Martin was the first non-martyr to receive the cultus of a saint. He serves as patron of alcoholics, armorers, beggars, cavalry, coopers, domestic animals, France, geese, girdlers, glovers, horses and horsemen, infantrymen, millers, innkeepers, soldiers, tailors, wine growers and wine merchants (because his feast falls just after the vendange), and wool-weavers (because he divided his cloak). He is invoked against drunkenness, poverty, storms, and ulcers. His memorial is celebrated on November 11th. Many churches have been named in his honor, including Saint Martin in the Fields in London.


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