“Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me.” - St Martin's Day

11 November 397 CE, St Martin was laid to his rest in Candes-Saint-Martin, Gaul. The day is traditionally celebrated as “St Martin’s Day” or Martinmas.
“Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me.” (Sulpicius Severus)



El Greco's vision of St Martin and the beggar (c 1599)


Cutting one’s own cloak in a half with a sword to clothe a freezing beggar on a cold winter day is certainly a supra-temporal gesture and one of the best uses of a weapon. The archetypical act legend attributed to St Martin of Tours is part of a hagiography depicting a man larger than life. Born in Hungary in the days of the late Roman Empire, he joined the army as a cavalryman, served in an elite regiment, left under a pagan commander, the later emperor Julian the Apostate, was baptised and confronted heretics and the devil himself, raised the dead and hid, out of modesty, in a goose-coop when the news reached him that he was to be nominated as bishop of Tours. He died at the age of 81 in 397 CE and became one of the most venerated saints in Christendom, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant alike.

St Martin allegedly became the patron saint of the Merovingian kings of France when their progenitor Clovis was baptised around 500 and the Carolingians, 250 years later, raised Martin’s Marmoutier Abbey and St Martin’s Basilica in Tours to something along the lines of national shrines and the half of the cloak the saint kept for himself became a battle standard the French kings carried into battle. According to legend, Charlemagne donated the cappa Sancti Martini", the cloak (cape) to the monks of St Denis and the relic was probably lost during the French Revolution. However, the keeper of the cloak was called the cappelanu and the role was later broadened into chaplain and the makeshift churches that housed the cappa on the march became capella, chapels. The veneration of St Martin was renewed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 and St Martin, once a patron of royalty, became a Patron Saint of the Third Republic and when the Great War ended on St Martin’s Day in the forest of Compiègne in 1918, many saw the ministry of St Martin at work.

On Martinmas or St Martin’s Day the agricultural year ended in the Middle Ages and winter began, wine was ready for drinking and the tithe was due, before 40 days of fasting began until the twelve days of Christmas. Often the tithe was paid in kind and on the continent geese were used before any other livestock since the fowl couldn’t fend as easily for themselves in winter and fattening was to expensive. St Martin’s symbol, the goose, became a traditional feast in many regions on November 11th during the festivities before the fasting began. Pigs traditionally were butchered on Martinmas in Britain and cattle in Spain. But since St Martin was a friend of children, too, one of the most enchanting customs takes place in the Central European countries where children carry their self-made lanterns and singing St Martin’s songs in a procession to a square where a bonfire is lit – probably a reminiscence of ages-old celebrations at the beginning of winter.


Usually, a horseman accompanies the children's customary lantern procession in remembrance of St Martin of Tours who once was a Roman knight. In this particular case, I was the ersatz-horse...