November 11 is Martinmas, one of the cross-quarter days, roughly half way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Coinciding now with Veterans’ Day in America and Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in European or Commonwealth countries, it is actually one of a cluster of at least eight “Days” and “Eves” around the cross-quarter date; see the Astronomical Companion section on “Seasons,” subsection “Traditional Times.”
This cross-quarter day is one of the candidates for the beginning of winter. If it’s cold where you are (as it is where I am), think of Martin, whose date of birth was November 8 (Julian calendar) though in an uncertain year of the early 300s. Not yet a veteran soldier but an eighteen-year-old one, he was huddled in his military cloak as he rode through a snowstorm toward the town gate of Samarobriva (now Amiens, in northern France). Seeing by the roadside a beggar clad in a few rags, Martin drew his sword, slashed his cloak across the middle, and gave half to the poor shiverer.
El Greco, Saint Martin and the Beggar
That night, Martin dreamed that he saw Jesus, wearing the half-cloak and telling the angels: “Martin gave me this. Yet he is not yet even one of my followers.” Martin was already a catechumen, a potential Christian receiving instruction; this vision clinched it, and he sought baptism next day.
Of the miraculous cloak or cape (cappa), his half (the cappella, “little cape”) was for centuries afterward preserved as a holy relic in a special chapel at a monastery, carried into battle by French kings, and entrusted to the care of a military priest called the cappellanus; hence our word chaplain.
Martin, unlike many of the early saints, was not a martyr. A surprising amount is known, or told, about him, because Sulpicius Severus, early chronicler of Christian history, knew him and wrote a biography of him; on top of which grew legends.
Martinus means a devotee of Mars, and he came of a military family: his father was a cavalry officer at Savaria (now Szombathely) in the Roman province of Pannonia (Hungary). Following the same profession, though troubling his father by early interest in Christianity, Martin was posted to several parts of the empire. One time, he was able to revisit Pannonia, and to convert his mother but not his father.
He apparently managed, throughout the usual twenty-five year tour of duty, to avoid shedding blood, until there came a time when it seemed he might have to, in a battle with a band of Germans who came across the Rhine at Borbetomagus (now Worms). Martin declared “I am a soldier of Christ; I cannot fight.” Court-martialled for cowardice, he offered to march in the front line of the troops – unarmed. Luckily, or miraculously, the enemy decided to go home, and Martin was simply discharged from military service. He clearly should be the patron saint of conscientious objectors.
He then went about as monk and sometimes hermit, becoming so revered by the Christians of Gaul (France) that they decided to make him Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours). He was so humble that they had to trick him, luring him to the town to cure a sick person; when he understood what they were at, he hid in a barn, but it was full of geese and they gave him away by honking.
Martin as bishop was active, humane, tolerant toward heretics, such as a sect called the Priscillians. A bishop in Spain, and the emperor of the time, agreed that the Priscillians should be beheaded; Martin pleaded with both, traveled to Spain, seemed to have won mercy. (The late Roman emperors of the time, with names like Magnus Maximus, were almost puppets, sometimes seemingly under Martin’s thumb.) After Martin left Spain, the beheadings happened anyway; he grieved, and cut off communications with the other bishop.
Of pagans he was less tolerant, zealously destroying temples of Jupiter, holy places of the Druids. Especially saddening to country people was the execution of their sacred trees. In one village, they agreed to fell their fir if he would stand in its path. He did, and miraculously it missed him.
(Much as the invaders had been deflected from killing him at Worms. I am also reminded of the story about Buster Keaton’s aplomb: a scene was filmed in which a house front fell, leaving him standing unharmed in the space left by one open window.)
Martin of Tours is one of the most popular saints in France and beyond. Every day has its saint, but of the days in early November it was Martin’s that became the usual cross-quarter: when food was laid in for the winter, and farm workers who had finished the harvesting were hired for the next season’s work at Martin’s Fair.
– At eleven o’clock today (2016-11-11-11), having had to break off from this story, I was in a German-owned supermarket (Lidl’s) in a multi-ethnic district of Britain (Lewisham), and wished I could have taken a photo for you (but I was too burdened with groceries to have had my iPad with me) of the aisles filled with customers of all colors, standing silent for the millions who “laid down their lives” in the first World War, a century ago.
There’s a last digression I can’t resist. You know of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, based on resounding prehistoric myths; his Nibelungs are dwarfs who steal the fatal Rheingold. But the medieval epic, the Nibelungenlied, though centuries older, is set in a more down-to-earth context, the court of a dynasty of rich Burgundian kings called the Nibelungs, at Worms on the Rhine. They are already in the Christian world, and have a chaplain. Half way through, the whole scene shifts to Hungary (to the court of an emperor called Etzel, a memory of Attila the Hun). There is much scholarly pondering about older sources and stories that could have gone into the Nibelungenlied, and I wonder whether there could even have been a memory of Martin, with his birth in Hungary and his heroic risk-taking at Worms. I’ve read the epic only in an English translation, which caused a certain moment to make me laugh and thus remember it: the crossing of the Rhine at the hinge between the two halves. Hagen (the villain in the epic as in the opera) throws the chaplain off the boat. The others get ashore safely, and everybody is in good spirits, “except for the chaplain. He had to foot it back to Worms.”