Wednesday 11 November 2015

Irish Devotion to Saint Martin of Tours

November 11 is the feastday of one of the fathers of Gaulish monasticism, Saint Martin of Tours, whose Life by Sulpicius Severus influenced the future writing of hagiography. Martin was a saint much venerated by the early Irish Church. The Martyrology of Oengus pays him a glowing tribute in its entry for November 11:

Saint Martin
a noble simile
the mount of gold
of the western world.

while the scholiast adds:

Saint Martin of Tours, of Gaul was he.

Martin a soldier, honour not slight, of Gallia Lugdunensis, a fully-gentle son of the race of the kings, son of Manualt and Abrasin.

noble simile etc., i.e. noble for him is his resemblance to gold propter etc. Martin out of Martin's Tours in the south of Frankland : of the Gauls was he, ut dixit quidam : Martin a soldier, honour without prohibition etc. Gold is he propter etc.

Michael Richter has a chapter on the Irish devotion to Saint Martin in his book 'Ireland and her Neighbours in the Seventh Century'. He takes as a starting point the early 9th-century Book of Armagh, a manuscript containing three distinct groups of material (1) A complete text of the New Testament, (2) A dossier of materials on Saint Patrick and (3) almost the complete body of writings on Saint Martin by Sulpicius Severus.

Contemporaneous with the Book of Armagh was the Martyrology of Tallaght which records a special tribute to Saint Martin among the saints of Europe in its entry for 20 April:

Communis sollemnitas omnium sanctorum et virginum Hiberniae et Britanniae et totius Europae et specialiter in honorem sancti Martini episcopi.

So, it would appear that in the early 9th century, respect for Saint Martin was well-established in Ireland, but as such devotion would not have arisen from a vacuum, Richter is keen to track its history. He finds evidence for Saint Martin in other sources before 800:

1. Jonas of Bobbio's Vita Columbani. Jonas relates that the saint while travelling requested to be allowed to pray at the tomb of St Martin. His companions did not intend to make this possible for him and so it took a miracle to allow Columbanus to pay his respects to Martin. Richter wonders where Columbanus may have acquired this devotion to St Martin. Was it while on his travels in Gaul or did he become acquainted with the works of Sulpicius in Ireland? If the latter, then Bangor would be the obvious place.

2. The Irish palimpsest sacramentary from the mid-7th century contains the text of a mass for St Martin.

3. In the Life of Columba, Adamnan mentions in passing that St Martin was commemorated during Mass at Iona. We cannot be sure, of course, whether Adamnan is reflecting the practice of his own time in the late 7th century or that of St Columba a century earlier. Furthermore, in writing his Life of Columba, Adamnan was clearly influenced by The Life of St Martin by Sulpicius Severus.

Richter then goes on to see just how far back in the history of Irish Christianity this devotion to Saint Martin might go. Traditionally, the earliest Gaulish connection was taken right back to Saint Patrick, who was said to have spent time training and travelling in Gaul, where he encountered the Life of Martin of Tours. Later sources, indeed, even claimed that Patrick's mother was Martin's sister! Richter, like other modern scholars, rejects this and suggests rather that the mission of Palladius to the Irish is a more likely conduit for the earliest transmission of the Martinian tradition. The mission of Palladius is now seen within the wider context of the mission of Germanus of Auxerre to Britain around 429. Thus, this could be the context in which the Life of St Martin was brought from Gaul to Ireland at an early date, and could explain how Columbanus was familiar with it before he ever left Ireland.

Richter concludes:

When taking all the fragments of information from Ireland altogether, textual, liturgical and hagiographical, it may be said that St Martin was a familiar and revered figure in Ireland in the mid-seventh century at the least. This would be easiest explained if the texts which praised him were known widely. The most plausible context for the arrival of the text of Sulpicius Severus remains the Palladian mission.

Michael Richter, Ireland and Her Neighbours in the Seventh Century (Dublin, 1999), 225-230.

Update for 2015: At my other site I have looked at another aspect of Irish devotion to Saint Martin: the tradition that Saint Colum Cille went to Tours and returned with the Gospel Book which had been buried with the saint. Read it here.

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