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E00292: Gregory of Tours, in his Life of *Senoch (ascetic and miracle-worker near Tours, ob. 576, S00116), tells how the feast of *Martin (ascetic and bishop of Tours, ob. 397, S00050) was marked in Tours as the beginning of a period of abstinence before Christmas. From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594.

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posted on 2015-02-13, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers 15.2

(Ch.2) Sed cum per eum Dominus super infirmos multas faceret virtutes, et ille ita se dixit includere, ut numquam humanis aspectibus appareret, consilium suasimus, ut non se perpetuo in hac conclusione constringeret, nisi in illis tantum dumtaxat diebus, qui inter depositionem sancti Martini ac dominici natalis solemnitatem habentur, vel in illis similiter quadraginta, quos ante paschalia festa in summa duci abstenentia, patrum sancxit auctoritas, reliquis vero diebus infirmorum gratia populis se praeberet.

'(Ch. 2) But as the Lord worked many miracles of healing through him [Senoch], and as he said that he wished to enclose himself so that he would no longer see the human face, we [Gregory] advised him not to constrain himself by such seclusion, except only during the days which come between [the feast of] the burial (depositionem) of St Martin and the celebration of the feast of Christmas, or during those other forty days (in illis similiter quadraginta) preceding the feast of Easter, which the authority of the Fathers ordains us to spend in great abstinence. During the rest of the year he ought to put himself at the disposal of the sick.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 272. Translation: James 1991, 97; lightly adapted.


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)

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

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Tours

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast


Gregory, bishop of Tours from 573 until his death (probably in 594), was the most prolific hagiographer of all Late Antiquity. He wrote four books on the miracles of Martin of Tours, one on those of Julian of Brioude, and two on the miracles of other saints (the Glory of the Martyrs and Glory of the Confessors), as well as a collection of twenty short Lives of sixth-century Gallic saints (the Life of the Fathers). He also included a mass of material on saints in his long and detailed Histories, and produced two independent short works: a Latin version of the Acts of Andrew and a Latin translation of the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The Life of the Fathers by Gregory of Tours is different from his other hagiographical works (Miracles of Julian, Miracles of Martin, Glory of the Confessors and Glory of the Martyrs), which all concentrate on posthumous miracles of the saints. The Life of the Fathers, by contrast, describes the exemplary behaviour in life of twenty Gallic saints (for a list of the Lives, see E05870). Gregory himself draws this contrast in the opening words of his preface: 'I had decided to write only about what has been achieved with divine help at the tombs of the blessed martyrs and confessors; but I have recently discovered information about those who have been raised to heaven by the merit of their blessed conduct here below, and I thought that their way of life, which is known to us through reliable sources, could strengthen the Church' (trans. James 1991, 1). In this preface Gregory also explains why he chose to call the book Life of the Fathers, not Lives of the Fathers: because they all lived the same bodily life. The nineteen Lives of men, and the single Life of a woman (Life 19), all relate to holy people of Gaul, the majority living in the mid to later sixth century. Although this agenda is unspoken, there can be little doubt that Gregory wrote these Lives partly to show that holiness, and the miraculous, were not just things of the past, but very much present within the Gaul of his day (a message that he expressed explicitly in his Histories). Almost all the saints he describes were active within one or other of the two dioceses with which Gregory was most familiar (his native Clermont, and Tours, the city of his episcopate), or indeed were his relatives (all bishops - Life 6 is of an uncle, Life 7 of a great-grandfather, and Life 8 of a great-uncle). Although Gregory says in his preface that they all shared one bodily life, in reality his saints fall into one of two distinct categories: holy bishops who are effective leaders of their flocks but only moderately ascetic (Lives 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 17), and holy ascetics who have withdrawn from the world and sometimes engage in extreme mortification of the body (Lives 1, 3, 5, 9-16, and 18-20). Gregory's work was unquestionably didactic in purpose - teaching the correct way to lead a good Christian life, and it is notable, for instance, how, in this work written by a bishop, his ascetics accept episcopal correction when necessary (Lives 15.2 and 20.3, in both cases from Gregory himself), and might even delay their death to suit the timetable of a bishop (Life 10.4). Because the focus is on the lives of these holy people, there is much less emphasis on their cult after death than in Gregory's other hagiographical works; however, all the Lives close with an account of the burial of the saint, and in almost all cases with reference to posthumous miracles recorded there (the exceptions are Lives 10, 11 and 20, which have no reference to miracles at the tomb). Gregory probably collected material for the Life of the Fathers (and perhaps wrote individual Lives) over a long period of time. However, from the words of his preface (quoted above) and from other references within the text, it is evident that he assembled his material into the polished work we have today only towards the very end of his life, after he had already written much of his extensive hagiography recording the miracles of saints lying in their graves. Because Gregory's views on saints do not seem to have changed during his writing life, we have not here expended energy in exploring the possible dating of individual lives, merely recording them all as written some time between 573 and 594. For more on the text, and on its dating: James 1991, xiii-xix; Shaw 2015, particularly 117-120.


For an overview of the Life of Senoch, see E00290. The quoted passage concerns the way in which Senoch, ascetic and healer, should divide his activity into a period of enclosure and a period of living in the world [see more in E00290]. Intensified abstinence is prescribed to him by Gregory of Tours during Lent, and during the time between the feast of Martin (11 November) and Christmas. Both periods are treated by Gregory as equal in character and length. The passage is important for the information it provides about the development of Advent as a time of preparation before Christmas (see especially McKinnon 2000, 146-149. Also Pfatteicher 2013, 'Advent', and 'Advent' in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, neither of which are aware of McKinnon's important work). It has been convincingly argued that Advent proper - a liturgical period of four Sundays, not connected directly to any fasting custom - was introduced in the western tradition as an innovation in late 7th-century Rome (McKinnon 2000). It gradually replaced some other early customs, so-called 'St-Martin's Lent' being the best known of them. This replacement didn't exclude a long period of coexistence and mutual influence. The existence of St-Martin's Lent is confirmed for 5th- and 6th-century Gaul in three pieces of evidence: - in this passage from the Life of Senoch. - in the series of vigils and fasts introduced by Bishop Perpetuus of Tours in 480/490, as recorded in Gregory of Tours' Histories X.31; these include a period of intensive fasting (three times a week) from the 1 October to the feast of St Martin and from the feast of Martin until Christmas [see E02392]; - in the ninth canon of the synod of Mâcon in Gaul (581) which orders that from the feast of St Martin to the Nativity the Eucharist should be celebrated according to the Lenten rite on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It is striking that all three pieces of evidence are closely connected to Gregory of Tours: the document of Perpetuus is known to us only through the text of the Histories, and Gregory was a prominent participant at the synod in Mâcon. The fasting period might have been introduced long before Gregory's times, but it is very probable that he was personally involved in promoting and advocating this custom. Strikingly, Gregory counts 40 days between the beginning of the abstinence period and Christmas, whereas there are 44 days from 11 November to 25 December. Gregory is either seeking for a perfect symmetry between the periods of abstinence before Christmas and Easter, or referring somehow to the custom of a 40-day fast (known as the Nativity Fast, beginning on 15 November, which is known to us from later eastern tradition only). In the latter case his initiative would be not to introduce, but to extend the fasting period and to connect it with the feast of Martin. The Gallic custom of St-Martin's Lent was influential, since several synods ordered fasting or forbade the celebration of matrimony in the period between 11 November and Nativity. Indeed still today in many traditions (for instance in Germany) the feast itself (Martinmas) bears traces of a Shrovetide-character (extensive eating, cattle-slaughter etc.). A distant influence of the feast on Advent can be seen in the the Mozarabic rite in Spain and the Ambrosian rite in Milan, where Advent begins on the first Sunday after St Martin's feast. The quoted passage also shows how much the feasts of the saints gained importance in the arrangement of the liturgical year and - more broadly - how they replaced the Roman calendar in late antique dating habits.


Edition: Krusch, B., Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum I.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1969). Translation: James, E., Gregory of Tours. Life of the Fathers (Translated Texts for Historians 1; 2nd ed.; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991). de Nie, G., Gregory of Tours, Lives and Miracles (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 39; Cambridge MA, 2015). Further reading: Shaw, R., "Chronology, Composition, and Authorial Conception in the Miracula", in: A.C. Murray (ed.), A Companion to Gregory of Tours (Leiden-Boston 2015), 102-140.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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