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Martin of Tours’ Monasticism and Aristocracies in Fourth-Century Gaul
lundi 20 juin 2016
par Matheus Coutinho Figuinha
popularité : 6%


This attempt to identify the disciples of Martin and their social origins offers little information to reach definitive conclusions. We have reports (in some cases only the name) of 22 people who could have been trained in Marmoutier,12 but Sulpicius testifies that almost eighty monks lived there [90]. Nevertheless, there exists sufficient data to draw up some hypotheses. Only Clarus and Gallus appear as probable members of curial families and can be considered nobles. It could be argued that Bishop Eusebius and the presbyters Arpagius, Aurelius, Aetherius, Evagrius, and Refrigerius, due to their ecclesiastical positions, also came from curial families, but there exist serious objections. In first place, Sulpicius did not give the slightest indication of their social origins, to the contrary of the case of Clarus, even though he insisted on emphasizing their ecclesiastical titles. In second place, as in the case of Brice, they could have been ordained priests because of the education they received in Marmoutier. Seven disciples are certainly of modest origin : Anatolius, Brice, Catan, Heros Lázarus, Victor, and an anonymous hermit. We do not have information about the social origins of the others.

This list and Martin’s impression about the example of Paulinus - that he « was almost the only one of his time to fulfill the evangelical precepts » [91] - are fully in agreement. In relation to this passage, Fontaine questions if Martin, by chance, did not want to save « les autres membres de l’aristocratie gallo-romaine » who lived in Marmoutier, referring to the example of Paulinus as almost unique. He proposes two hypotheses to explain the words of the Bishops of Tours. The first is that the noble monks of Marmoutier may not have given up all their goods, since family conditions had to be different : other members of their families would have continued to live in the world and enjoy the family’s assets. The second is that Paulinus, having established himself in Nola, had voluntarily abandoned his patria, something which the monks of Marmoutier had not done, even when coming from provinces to the south of Gaul [92].

However, the sources do not corroborate Fontaine’s hypotheses. For some of the priests of the desert, exile was one of the most important duties of monks (cf. Apophthegmata Patrum, Andreas). However, in the West, there were no echoes of this need to expatriate oneself. Moreover, Nola was not a strange place for Paulinus. He had deposited the first beard he had cut in the sanctuary of St. Felix and between 380 and 381 had been governor of Campania, a period in which a road was built which linked Nola to the same sanctuary [93]. We can suppose, with greater probability, that Martin had cited the example of Paulinus because he knew of his friendship with Sulpicius. Calling attention to someone so close to his interlocutor, the bishop made his advice become much more illustrative and touching. However, the passage has certainly much more sense if we admit that in Marmoutier there were no aristocrats of the caliber of Paulinus. Martin, like Augustine [94], and Ambrosius [95], was very impressed, exactly because, as the list of his disciples confirms, there were never any reports of the conversion to monasticism of a rich senator.

A passage from the Dialogues (3.14.5-6) corroborates this conclusion :

[The former vicar Lycontius] offered a hundred pounds of silver, which the blessed man neither rejected nor accepted ; but before the amount of money touched the threshold of the monastery, he had, without hesitation, destined it for the redemption of captives. And when it was suggested to him by the brethren, that some portion of it should be reserved for the expenses of the monastery, since it was difficult for all of them to obtain necessary food, while many of them were sorely in need of clothing, he replied, « Let the church both feed and clothe us, as long as we do not appear to have provided, in any way, for our own wants. »

A phrase from the Vita (10.6), « all things were shared in common, » suggests that the monks of Marmoutier had contributed with part of their goods to the common property of the monastery. Nevertheless, this passage from the Dialogues, by leaving it clear that these goods were not sufficient to guarantee the maintenance of the monastery, indicates that there no monks were found with comparable fortunes to the rich senators. Otherwise, I do not understand how the monks could have reached such penury (they lacked fundamental products for subsistence), even during a period of economic restrictions. Nevertheless, some objections can be made. The first is that, like Clarus, the monks who possessed goods could have abandoned everything by converting, in such a way that they no longer had any revenue. The second is that many nobles mentioned in the Vita may not have resided in Marmoutier since the beginning, since Sulpicius’ description in the tenth chapter of Vida reflects the situation of the monastery in the 390, around 20 years after its foundation.

While, on the one hand, only two disciples of Martin convincingly appear as aristocrats, Sulpicius, on the other hand, sought to highlight the contacts of his hero with important aristocrats and the imperial court. In relation to this, Sulpicius writes that Martin « gave orders not only to counts and prefects, but also to kings themselves » (Dialogi 1.24.4). On the list of important relations of the Bishop of Tours, we can find people from the administration : Arborius, « a former prefect » (uir praefectorius) [96], the most important person who Martin knew ; Avitianus, a « count » (comes) [97], and his wife (Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.3.1-4) ; Auspicius, « former prefect » (praefectorius uir), and his son, Romulus [98] ; Evancius [99], uncle of Gallus ; Lycontius, « a former vicar » (ex uicariis) [100] ; Tetradius, « a former proconsul » (uir proconsularis) [101].

We can also add to the lust the names of Meropius Pontius Paulinus [102] and Sulpicius Severus [103]. Among the emperors, Martin visited Maximus and his wife, who supposedly venerated him a lot [104], and Valentinian I [105]. In court Martin met people with an elevated social position [106], even defending the cause of some of them [107].

Had Martin also established direct relations with his aristocratic admirers, devotees of asceticism, who we can find in the writings of Sulpicius ? We know the names of Bassula, mother-in-law of Sulpicius [108] ; Dagridus, « a former tribune » (ex tribunis) [109] ; Desiderius, to which Sulpicius dedicates the Vita ; Euquerius, « a former vicar » (ex uicariis), and Celsus, « a former consul » (consularis), who arrived at Primuliaco in the second journey of the Dialogues to hear Gallus’ stories [110] ; and Postumianus, one of the interlocutors of the Dialogues, a friend of Sulpicius [111]. Moreover, three patres familias are mentioned anonymously [112].

Fontaine supposes that Martin’s important contacts confirm Sulpicius’ assertion in section 10.8 of the Vita [113]. However, nothing corroborates his assumption. Most of those mentioned above maintained their secular careers. Even those who converted to monasticism - in this case Paulinus and Sulpicius - did not abandon their refined lifestyle to transfer to Marmoutier. Actually, rich aristocrats like him lived their monastic ideals in their uillae amongst relatives and friends. The only conclusion which Martin’s list of important contacts allows us make is that many aristocrats felt touched by him.

Sulpicius wrote his Martinian works for monks and sympathizers of monasticism, for lettered aristocrats, many of whom were not disposed to convert to Christianity in order not to abandon classical literature, and against the bishops of Gaul, hostile to Martin’s military past and monasticism, and skeptical about his miracles and his capacity to interpret the Scriptures [114]. By highlighting the contacts of his hero with important aristocrats and emperors, Sulpicius’ objectives were to show that he was not only an apostle of the poor and the peasants and to guarantee the authenticity of his miracles. At the same time Sulpicius visited Marmoutier various times [115], in such a way that he had the opportunity to get to know all the monks living there. While we do not have information about the social origin of most of Martin`s disciples, it is because Sulpicius has nothing to say about this. Stating that many nobles lived in Marmoutier, surrounded by manuscripts [116] and promoted to episcopal seats, but who had voluntarily abandoned wealth and comfort, choosing a life of humility and mortifications [117], was a way of defending and at the same time promoting Martinian monasticism among his erudite readers.

Moreover, Sulpicius wanted, with the detailed description of Marmoutier in the tenth chapter of the Vita, to criticize the supposed mundane clergy of Gaul, as Fontaine aptly points out [118] :

Point par point, on y relève des griefs qui s’opposent à la vie parfaite menée à Marmoutier sous la direction de Martin : modestie de l’habitat, du vêtement, de la nourriture et de la boisson, dénuement, solitude, vie contemplative. Tout était là-bas l’envers de la richesse, de l’orgueil et de la mondanité. Ainsi, les exigences de l’apologétique ne sont pas moindres dans la stylisation de ce chapitre, qui pouvait d’abord apparaître comme une pure contemplation de l’idéal ascétique réalisé à Marmoutier selon le coeur de Sulpice.

In this criticism, the presence of many nobles was used to increase the amount of renunciation of the material world by Martinian disciples : they were aristocrats who, like Clarus, had abandoned everything, not poor people who had nothing to abandon. It is curious that Fontaine, who analyzed so well the literary strategies of Sulpicius in the Vita, accepted so literally the assertion that many aristocrats lived in Marmoutier.

The only fact that can confirm Sulpicius’ assertions is that many monks wore camel skin [119], one of the most precious reminders which a devote pilgrim of monasticism could bring from Egypt [120]. If the Martinian monks had travelled on pilgrimage to Egypt, we can conclude that they were from an elevated social condition. However, it appears that camels were raised in Gaul in Late Antiquity and their skins provided low cost clothes [121]. Sulpicius sent a skin to Paulinus around 400 [122]. Nevertheless, camel skins were perfectly suited to Sulpicius’ criticism of the supposed mundane clergy of Gaul. Thus, the indication that the Martinian monks wore them could ultimately be fallacious.

Finally, I have the impression that Sulpicius himself was not particularly convinced of the presence of ’many nobles’ in Marmoutier. His words, « many among them were considered [habebantur] nobles » (emphasis added), may indicate a certain reservation on his part, but the information was too useful to the portrait he wanted to trace of Marmoutier and Martinian monasticism to be discarded. He could have heard this information from the monks of Marmoutier themselves [123], but he found no confirmation.


[90] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 10.5 ; As Fontaine indicates (1967-1969, pp. 674-675, however, this number is probably artificial.

[91] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 25.4

[92] Fontaine, 1967-1969, p. 1059

[93] Trout, 1999, pp. 47-48

[94] Epp. 27 and 31

[95] Ep. 58.1

[96] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 19.1-2 ; Dialogi 3.10.6 ; For the prosopographical news about all those cited in this paragraph, I especially draw on the most recent book by Pietri and Heijmans, 2013

[97] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.4.1, 3.5.1, 3.8.1-3

[98] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.7

[99] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 2.2.3-7

[100] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.14.3-5

[101] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 17.1-4) ; and Vicente, a « prefect » (praefectus) (Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 1.25.6

[102] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 19.3 and 25.4 ; Dialogi 1.23.4 and 3.17.3 ; Paulinus, Ep. 18.9 ; cf. Pietri ; Pietri, 2000, pp. 1630-1654

[103] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 25.1-3 ; Ep. 2.6 ; Dialogi 2.4.1, 2.12.1, 2.13.3-4, and 2.13.8

[104] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 20 ; Dialogi 2.6, 3.11 ; Chronica 2.50.2

[105] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 2.5

[106] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 20.4-7

[107] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.11.8

[108] Sulpicius Severus, Ep. 3.1-5

[109] Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.5.1

[110] Dialogi 3.1.7

[111] Dialogi 1.1.1, 1.5.6, 1.9.6

[112] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 16 and 17.5-7 ; Dialogi 3.2.3-8

[113] Fontaine, 1993, p. 27

[114] cf. Fontaine, 1967-1969, pp. 72-84 ; Stancliffe, 1983, pp. 72-80 ; Ghizzoni, 1983, p. 121

[115] cf. Delehaye, 1920, pp. 34-36 ; Fontaine, 1967-1969, p. 29 and 1050 ; Stancliffe, 1983, p. 71 and 318

[116] cf. Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 10.6

[117] cf. Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 10.8-9

[118] 1967-1969, p. 689

[119] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini 10.8

[120] Fontaine, 1967-1969, p. 681

[121] de Vogüé, 1988, p. 87 ; de Vogüé, 1997, p. 50

[122] Paulinus, Ep. 29.1

[123] In relation to Sulpicius’ informants, cf. (Fontaine, 1967-1969, pp. 183-205, and Stancliffe, 1983, pp. 160-173).

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