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Martin of Tours’ Monasticism and Aristocracies in Fourth-Century Gaul
lundi 20 juin 2016
par Matheus Coutinho Figuinha
popularité : 32%

Sulpicius Severus dedicated the tenth chapter of the Vita Martini to the monastery which his hero founded a little more than three kilometers from Tours, later known as Marmoutier. Sulpicius describes the surrounding geography, the architecture of the monastery, the rules enforced within it, and the monks who were part of it. In relation to the latter, he states : « many among them were considered nobles » (Sulpicius Severo, Vita Martini 10.8).

Sulpicius’ statement, long accepted by scholars [1], was questioned for the first time by Ernest-Charles Babut. In articles published between 1910 and 1912 and collected in the 1912 book Saint Martin de Tours, de 1912, he accused Sulpicius of insincerity and argues that his works about St. Marin have no historic value. Babut notes that among the disciples of the bishop, only Clarus appears in Sulpicius’ writings as clarissimus [2].2 In addition, he suggests that it was not common at that time for the son of a senator to become a monk. In his favor, he mentions a tract from the Vita (25.4), in which Martin exhorts Sulpicius to abandon the world, offering him the « almost unique » example of Paulinus, future bishop of Nola [3].

Despite the strong criticism that Babut’s thesis received in 1966 [4], Friedrich Prinz portrayed Martinian monasticism through many of the French historian’s arguments. In his important monography, Frühes Mönchtum im Frankenreich, Prinz considers Martinian monasticism as institutionally disorganized, since it had derived from the example of St. Martin, a charismatic thaumaturge who destroyed pagan temples in the countryside. The monasteries founded under his inspiration, did not possess continuity, structure, or organization (Tageseinteilung), had fundamentally been hermit colonies, in other words, groups of enthusiastic hermits and gyrovague monks centered around a holy man. Moreover, Prinz states that the Bishop of Tours was celebrated in the fourth century and the beginning of the fifty only by Paulinus and Sulpicius, two outsiders (Außenseiter) to his monasticism. St Martin, a former soldier who did not leave any writings, did not have the same education as them, since he had come from a modest family, and his father had been a soldier and a tribune [5]. It is thus clear that Prinz did not accept the presence of nobles in Marmoutier. But he did not discuss Sulpicius’ assertion in section 10.8 of the Vita.

Only two years after the appearance of Prinz’s book, Jacques Fontaine, in his brilliant commentaries to the Vita (1967-1969), prepared a definitive reply to Babut’s hypercritical argument, thereby rehabilitating Sulpicius’ credibility. Fontaine, however, did not question the assertion that Marmoutier had been settled by nobles. To the contrary, he assumed that the Martinian monks did not practice manual labor because of the prejudices of the aristocracies and that the monastery was materially provided for by the revenues from the properties of its richest members [6]. In a more recent study, Fontaine refers to the example of Marmoutier, amongst others, to argue in favor of a strong influx of monasticism on Western aristocracies in the 370s [7]. In his works, the Martinian monks are identified as « les nobles », « l’élite de la société gallo-romaine », « jeunes nobles », « la clientèle aristocratique, et donc lettrée, de Marmoutier », « membres de l’aristocratie gallo-romaine », « la noblesse des Gaules », « l’aristocratie provinciale », « les fils des latifondiaires gallo-romains », terms that are somewhat vague and not necessarily equivalent [8].

Since its publication, Fontaine’s position has been unreservedly accepted by scholars [9]. Some historians have developed them, but do not discuss section 10.8 of the Vita. This is the case of Richard J. Goodrich, who suggests that the social divisions of the time remained unaltered in Marmoutier : monks of an aristocratic origin dedicated themselves to the otium, while servants and slaves did the necessary tasks and the Church was responsible for the subsistence of the monastery [10]. Roberto Alciati, in turn, divides St. Martin’s disciples into just two groups : the teachers of rhetoric, who had knowledge that had come from grammar and rhetoric schools ; and the learned amateurs, who were interested in litteratura, but who had not been teachers [11]

My objective in this article is to analyze up to which point we can trust in Sulpicius’ assertion in section 10.8 of the Vita. The question is important because it does not concern only the Marmoutier case. Some scholars tend to generalize their understanding of Martinian monasticism to all the monastic experiences of fourth century Gaul and, consequently to homogenize them [12]. Examining the reliability of section 10.8 of the Vita is therefore the first and most important step to reevaluating our understanding of Martinian monasticism, in particular, and Gallic monasticism in general. In the following pages, I will argue that there does not exist clear evidence that corroborates Sulpicius’ assumption, and that he must be considered with great caution.

This article is inserted in the context of the appearance of the so-called ’saintly men’ of the third and fourth centuries. Peter Brown (1978) argues that in the cities of the times of the Antonines, a ’model of parity’ restricted tensions among aristocrats. In other words, the competition for power, honor, and wealth was dissimulated in acts of generosity which favoured all citizens [13]. At the moment which this ’model of parity’ disappeared, around 260, some people began to stand out among their peers. From here there emerged the ’saintly men,’ who obtained superior positions in the (urban or ecclesiastic) community because they supposedly maintained an intimate relationship with the divine. According to Brown, Egyptian monks represented the peak of this process : because of their rigorous asceticism, they, and only they, enjoyed a spiritual power which was shown in a palpable and continuous manner.

St. Martin was one of these ’saintly men.’ Since he had acted as a ’saintly man’ - Sulpicius stated that he could control elements of nature, cure diseases, and raise the dead - he enjoyed the admiration of aristocrats (cf. infra) and obtained success in his campaigns for the Christianization of the countryside [14]. However, at the same time, St Martin encountered strong opposition. Sulpicius’ work should be read exactly as the defense of the Bishop of Tours against those who condemned his military past, did not believe in his miracles, and associated his monastic regime with Priscillianism. Sulpicius wanted to show, amongst other things, that the miracles of his hero were authentic because he enjoyed an intimate relationship with the divine and that this relationship was possible because he had an impeccable monastic regime [15].


[1] cf. Besse, 1906, p. 17

[2] Babut supposes that all the members of the senatorial order belonged to the nobilitas.

[3] Babut, 1912, pp. 240-241

[4] cf., for example, Delehaye, 1920

[5] Prinz, 1988, pp. 19-46 and 452-485

[6] Fontaine, 1967-1969, p. 677, 685, 958, and 991

[7] Fontaine, 1979, pp. 40-43

[8] Fontaine, 1967-1969, pp. 673-674, 678, 683-684, 958, 1059 and 1338-1341 ; Fontaine, 1973, p. 96 and 100 ; Fontaine, 1974, p. 270 ; Fontaine, 1979, p. 41, 48 and 50

[9] cf. Pricoco, 1978, p. 12 and 65-66 ; Ghizzoni, 1983, p. 70 and 73 ; Pietri, 1983, p. 52, 603, and 639-640 ; Stancliffe, 1983, pp. 25-26 ; Oudart, 1993, p. 127 ; de Vogüé, 1997, pp. 50-51 ; Dunn, 2003, p. 63 ; Brown, 2012, p. 51, 216, and 415

[10] Goodrich, 2007, pp. 192-196

[11] Alciati, 2009, pp. 53-54 and 58)

[12] For a recent example, cf. Brown, 2012, p. 415).

[13] In relation to civic Euergetism, cf. Veyne, 1976.

[14] For a recent study of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, cf. Veyne, 2011).

[15] Fontaine, 1967-1969, pp. 72-84 ; Stancliffe, 1983, pp. 149-159

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