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E00100: Sulpicius Severus recounts how *Martin (ascetic and bishop of Tours, ob. 397, S00050) investigated the authenticity of some martyrs venerated in the countryside of his diocese and ordered the destruction of an altar built over them. Account in the Life of Martin, written in Latin in Primuliacum (south west Gaul), c. 396.

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posted on 2014-10-28, 00:00 authored by robert
Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin 11

Sed ut reliquas virtutes eius quas in episcopatu egit adgrediar erat haud longe ab oppido proximus monasterio locus quem falsa hominum opinio velut consepultis ibi martyribus sacraverat nam et altare ibi a superioribus episcopis constitutum habebatur. Sed Martinus non temere adhibens incertis fidem ab his qui maiores natu erant presbyteris vel clericis flagitabat nomen sibi martyris tempus passionis ostendi grandi se scrupulo permoveri quod nihil certi constans sibi maiorum memoria tradidisset. Cum aliquandiu ergo a loco illo se abstinuisset nec derogans religioni quia incertus erat nec auctoritatem suam vulgo adcommodans ne superstitio convalesceret quodam die paucis se cum adhibitis fratribus ad locum pergit. Dehinc super sepulchrum ipsum adstans oravit ad dominum ut quis esset vel cuius meriti esset sepultus ostenderet. Tum conversus ad laevam videt prope adsistere umbram sordidam trucem imperat nomen meritum que loqueretur. Nomen edicit de crimine confitetur latronem se fuisse ob scelera percussum vulgi errore celebratum sibi nihil cum martyribus esse commune cum illos gloria se poena retineret. Mirum in modum vocem loquentis qui aderant audiebant personam tamen non videbant. Tum Martinus quid vidisset exposuit iussit que ex loco altare quod ibi fuerat submoveri atque ita populum superstitionis illius absoluit errore.

'Let me proceed to a description of other miracles which Martin performed as a bishop. There was, not far from the town, a place very close to the monastery, which a false human opinion had consecrated, on the supposition that some martyrs had been buried together there. For it was also believed that an altar had been placed there by former bishops. But Martin, not inclined to give a hasty belief to things uncertain, often asked from those who were his elders, whether among the presbyters or clerics, that the name of the martyr, or the time when he suffered, should be made known to him. He did so, he said, because he had great scruples on these points, inasmuch as no steady tradition respecting them had come down from antiquity. Having, therefore, for a time kept away from the place, by no means wishing to lessen the religious veneration with which it was regarded, because he was as yet uncertain, but, at the same time not lending his authority to the opinion of the multitude, lest a mere superstition should obtain a firmer footing, he one day went out to the place, taking a few brethren with him as companions. There standing above the very sepulchre, Martin prayed to the Lord that he would reveal, who the man in question was, and what was his character or desert. Next turning to the left-hand side, he sees standing very near a shade of a mean and cruel appearance. Martin commands him to tell his name and character. Upon this, he declares his name, and confesses his guilt. He says that he had been a robber, and that he was beheaded on account of his crimes; that he had been honoured simply by an error of the multitude; that he had nothing in common with the martyrs, since glory was their portion, while punishment exacted its penalties from him. Those who stood by heard, in a wonderful way, the voice of the speaker, but they beheld no person. Then Martin made known what he had seen, and ordered the altar which had been there to be removed, and thus he delivered the people from the error of that superstition.'

Text: Fontaine 1967. Translation: Roberts 1894.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martin, bishop of Tours (Gaul), ob. 397 : S00050

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Primuliacum Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Major author/Major anonymous work

Sulpicius Severus

Cult activities - Places


Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Uncertainty/scepticism/rejection of a saint

Cult Activities - Miracles

Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future)

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Other lay individuals/ people Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy


Unlike other lives of saints the Life of Martin was written before its protagonist's death (Martin died in 397). Its author, Sulpicius Severus, was an aristocrat and friend of Paulinus of Nola, like him converted to the ascetic life under Martin's influence. He founded a monastic community on his estate of Primuliacum in Aquitania. The Life of Martin, as well as three Letters and Dialogues written after Martin's death, present him as a perfect monk, bishop and miracle-worker. Sulpicius Severus argues that there is no contradiction between being a good bishop and a monk, and even that only a monk makes a good bishop. This was a novel and controversial idea, since the Gallic episcopacy was generally reluctant to accept ascetic monasticism.


Sulpicius' account shows that cults of martyrs could develop independently, perhaps especially in the countryside, and that bishops might try to control this process within their dioceses. Still, it would be risky to see in this passage a firm programmatic statement that it is for the bishop to decide who should be venerated, and how. What Sulpicius wants to say is that the veneration of martyrs can take erroneous forms and that it was Martin's special grace that permitted him to reveal the error, for the systematic enquiries which he made before were not conclusive. This does not imply that every bishop (and Sulpicius Severus does not trust bishops in general) was able distinguish true saints from the false.


Edition, French translation and commentary: Fontaine, J., Sulpice Sévère,Vie de saint Martin. 3 vols. (Sources Chrétiennes 133-135; Paris: Cerf, 1967-1969). English translation: Roberts, A., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, vol. 11 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894). Further reading: Stancliffe, C., Saint Martin and his Hagiographer: Miracle and History in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). Vogüé, A. de, Histoire littéraire du mouvement monastique dans l'antiquité. Vol. 4 (Paris: Cerf, 1997), 19-91.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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