Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 19

Here is the new installment of St. Martin's life.

Arborius was a man of prefectoral rank. He was faithful and had a very holy nature. When his daughter was burning with a very serious quatrain fever, Arborius placed a letter of Martin which, by chance, had been brought to him, in the bosom of the girl at the height of the fever and immediately the fever was put to flight. (2) This incident impressed Arborius so much that he immediately devoted the girl to God and declared her everlasting virginity. He went to Martin and brought with him the girl, the present testimony of Martin's virtues, who had been cured even in Martin's absence. Nor would he allow her to be consecrated or the habit of virginity imposed by anyone else but Martin.

(3) Paulinus, a man who would a little while later be a great example to the age, began to suffer grievously in an eye. Cloudiness began to cover over the pupil rather densely. Martin touched the eye with a brush and restored it to its earlier health with all the pain removed. (

4) Martin himself, when, he by some accident, fell headlong from an upper story after tripping on an uneven stair, suffered many wounds. While he lay half-dead in his cell and tortured with terrible pain, by night, an angel was seen washing the wounds and anointed the bruises of his body with a healing ointment. On the next day, he was restored to health so that one would think that nothing harmful had ever happened to him.

(5) But it takes a long time to go through each example. These few things shall suffice for the many incidents. It is enough that we do not take away from the truth in striking cases and that we avoid weariness in telling about many.


Here we come to the end of a fairly lengthy section on Martin's cures and miracles which come to a climax in an peculiar indication of divine favour. Before this, we have two healings of notable men. Arborius is described by St. Martin as having the rank of prefect, but doesn't indicate his office, if he was then holding one. I'm sure if I hunted him up in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, I'd find him, but, as I don't have that particularly useful behemoth of a resource on hand, I think that is about all I can say about him. A rank of prefect puts him in the higher echelons of Roman civil administration, so his testimony would have particular weight.

Paulinus, if I'm guessing right, is probably St. Paulinus of Nola, an associate of Sulpicius Severus and an important saint/bishop in Gaul in his own right. The coy reference to him being a little later a great example seems to support this identification, but I am always happy to hear if I'm wrong here.

The content of these first two miracles, I think, are straightforward. In the Arborius miracle, we find an object from St. Martin effecting the cure of Arborius' daughter. This kind of story, of course, drive Protestants a little crazy because it implies that the cure is effected by something akin to sympathetic magic: because St. Martin wrote/touched the letter, the letter itself is infused by his spiritual power. What this evokes is the practices from the time of the Reformation which saw practices such as indulgences or relics prey upon the credulity of the common people. I'm not saying, incidentally, that God can't effect miracles in this way, but that this kind of concept has, historically, been exploited by religious hucksters in such a way that makes Protestants very leery of entertaining stories like this.

Arborius' reaction to this miracle, making his daughter a nun, may strike us as an odd one, if not an offensive one, if we should adopt, say, a feminist critique of it. There is no doubt that the girl is simply expected to go along with it and Sulpicius did not see fit to say what she thought of the whole transaction. She was, after all, under the authority of her father, what kind of opinion could she expected to have, at least in Sulpicius' mind?. Yet, I think we have to be careful not to presume too much on the lack of evidence. It is possible that she agreed with Arborius' action and, in gratitude for her life, she also wanted to become a religious. We simple don't know.

The Paulinus miracles is rather more straight-forward, almost to the point of being prosaic. I'm not a doctor, of course, (perhaps someone with better medical knowledge can pronounce on this), but this seems to be the healing of a really bad eye infection by something which looks like a simple cleaning of the eye. I must admit that I do think the clouding of the eye may be indicative of cataracts, but I'm just not learned enough here to say for sure.

This brings me to the last miracle which is the climax of this section. Here it is Martin himself who is badly injured and on the edge of death. Here also Martin isn't the person who is curing, but the person being cured. Yet, the image of the angel washing his wounds seems to recall the Gospel accounts of the Temptation of Jesus in which, after Satan fails in his temptations of Jesus and leaves, the angels serve Jesus (Matthew 4,11; Mark, 1,13). I recognize this isn't the same thing as binding up wounds, but the idea, I think, is similar. That is, Jesus has undergone a difficult physical trial and the angels help him recover from it. I note that the verb used in both of these Biblical passages is also used for serving food to someone as a sort of waiter or servant. However, the common element is service by angels which is a sign of divine approval.

Yet, I also have to note a certain tentativeness in the Latin here. The verb used (visus est) is a passive form and, I think, is definitely kept vague about who was doing the seeing and how. I think it probably means that Martin saw it, but I don't know if it wants to distinguish between actually seeing it, seeing it in a dream or in a vision. Not that it matters, since the cure was effective.

The last part of this passage is a fairly straightforward transition to the next section. It is not unusual as we've found in this work for an ancient author to make a transition by emphasizing that the examples cited are only a few of the many incidents like this. Nor is it unusual for the idea of balancing giving a true picture of the person involved and not wearing the reader unduly to be brought out. This kind of affected humility is a favourite rhetorical stance of Sulpicius Severus and, indeed, many other authors, Christian and pagan.

So, next month we'll move on into a new section of Sulpicius Severus. We're down to the last eight chapters, so enjoy!



Jim said...


I have been following your St. Martin postings all along. I am wondering a few things. Remember that I am not a professional scholar and be gentle with me.

It seems to me that that Severus is telling us things that closely mirror the life and ministry of Jesus. Is that because he is making the case for Martin as a saint and therefor wants us to see similarities? Or because making the links validates the saints conflict with the pagans of his time? Or am I missing the (obvious) point?


Phil Snider said...

Hi jim;

You may be the only person who could make that claim.

Really, I'm not entirely sure what I think. I think there bay be an aspect of trying to make a case for St. Martin as a saint, but I think we have to remember that the idea of a saint's life is to also inspire other people towards more saintly behavior. I think this is probably the primary purpose, especially because I think the primary audience here are already or (perhaps soon-to-be) devoit Christians.

That is why I doubt that this is part of the pagan/Christian conflict; I doubt seriously whether Severus' audience was inclined to sympathize with Martin's opponents.

Hope that is helpful.

Jim said...

"You may be the only person who could make that claim."


I can see the probability that the intended readers were not likely to sympathize with pagans.

In re-reading Joshua and Judges recently, I found myself thinking of what the authors were attempting to do. Now as we look at history, they have some problems. This is not, if you will permit the term, "journalism history." That is, it is not a recounting of what happened as objectively as 'laymen' generally (albeit with more hope than realism) think we now write history.

I find the authors of both books trying to create from the known oral history, a national myth. So, G-d told them to do the violent and often rather sneaky things they did to take the land from its occupants. This is a bit handy if you are working on a national consciousness and an awkward sense of G-d's justice at the same time.

It appears to me that some of the same working out may be seen in Torah, especially Genesis and Exodus. The stark contrast between Chronicle and King's pictures of David is a prime example.

Before we get spammed here, let me point out that I am not trying to suggest the Bible is false. I rather think it may be a lot more true than the 'inerrant' folks think. I know you know that but we operate in a bit of a fishbowl here.


Phil Snider said...


Sorry, the claim I meant there was that you may be the only person to have read the St. Martin postings. You are, I think, the only person to comment. For which I am profoundly grateful.

I think you are on the track of something in your post, especially in the sense that both Joshua/Judges and Sulpicius Severus are contributing/creating a narrative intended to bind together the communities to which they belong. I quibble a little with some of the details.

First, I tend to twitch a little about discussions of these kinds of Biblical and Patristic sources being measured against what is really our idea of history. I'm not saying we abandon our critical faculties, but that we don't expect them to adhere to our assumptions of 'objectivity' etc. Yes, Sulpicius isn't exactly a disinterested party in his narrative, but an ancient historian would also note that he had access to eyewitnesses etc. which gives him some value which modern historians would deny.

Second, I question the suggestion of consciously furthering an ideological stance in the way you imply. I'm not denying that there might be an unconscous ideological stance, but I doubt that this was so thought out.

Those are quibbles, but, I think, important enough to address.

I know what you mean by the fishbowl. For the record, I don't think you are claiming the bible is false, but that you are seeking to understand it better.


Jim said...


I suppose any "post modern" person (whatever that may actually be) can agree that the agenda is not necessarily conscious or intentional. But, I think one problem here is that my ideas may have carried unintended baggage.

I did not mean to suggest that whomever it was who wrote Joshua or Judges sat down and said, 'OK, I have to clean up this oral history or the emerging nation state of Israel is gonna have issues with its past.' Nor did I mean to suggest they were intentionally untruthful. I think the critique goes deeper than that, if I can articulate it.

No one, especially in a day and age when writing a history was as major an undertaking as it was for these men, including Serevus, did so lightly. Jewish scribes to this day are taught to make the media they use to copy Torah. That is today a link to tradition, but it was then a necessity. One did not run down to the office supply shop. :-) So, for that reason alone, we should treat the text with respect.

Let me then consider the author(s) of Joshua and Judges. These are serious texts written by serious author(s). We can only discern their motives, to the extent we can, from the works. Of looking at it another way, we can observe the place they fill in the life of Israel.

Two questions arise, I think. Why were they written: why were they preserved? Someone, I visualize a curmudgeonly sort a lot like the fellow I see in the mirror, decided to preserve the story(ies) he knew. He may have observed that they were not being told to the young folks, or that the young folks, corrupted by what he saw as modernity were not paying attention. In any case he sat down to write them.

Now as any critical realist knows, he will inevitably bring to the papyrus (or whatever) several things.

* He will bring his own world view, including his understanding of what a story does. He may not be as aware of that as a post modern Jim B. or Phil Snyder, but he still carries it with him.

* He will bring his reason for thinking the story should be told.

* He will bring the history of the story, its growth and shaping on its way to him.

* He will bring his own style, informed by the culture in which he learned to tell stories.

He cannot help bringing those things. When I say the Bible is the inspired word of G-d, and I do, I am saying that G-d is smart enough to know that these elements are a part of G-d's creation. So, the inspiration to write is inclusive of these things.

Saying the author sets out to tell the story, within his own paradigm, I am not saying he is dishonest or naive. I am saying he carries the burden of his paradigm, as would you or I.

When, then I consider his work I am trying to understand not only what he said, but how much of it is mythic, and ascribed to make the story work, how much is interpretative, in the sense of being explanation of what was done and how that conforms to what the author believes is G-d's plan, and where it fits in the radically reinterpreted story of Israel presented by John, Jesus, Peter and Paul.

The gospel authors for another instance, note as the KJV has it, "This was done so that the prophecy might be fulfilled..." on several occasions, This is explaining not only why something happened, it is telling us why the event is recounted. That is, it tells us somethings about the author's inteded audience and viwpoint.

All of which is a rather long winded, I fear, response to your quibbles. I do not mean to in any way degenerate the writers, nor to doubt their reportage as such. But as a story teller, I often find myself explaining the stories, sometimes by saying what **I** think the person was thinking. That is what storytellers do.