Tuesday, August 13, 2013

St. Martin in the Letters of Sulpicius Severus

I've decided now that I've finally finished the three letters of Sulpicius Severus on St. Martin, that I'd publish a draft translation of them for comment or, at least, to help me think through some of the linguistic and/or historical issues with them. So, I'm intending to publish them, section by section with commentary, as it occurs to me. I should note that this is not incredibly well researched commentary, but just things that popped into my head as I translated. So, consider both it and the commentary as a work-in-progress.

There is, of course, a bit of a history to this project. Way back in 2009, I finished posting my translation of Sulpicius Severus', Life of St. Martin. You can find that translation and commentary series right here. My intention was that I'd do a few more revisions, work-up a decent translation and self-publish a serviceable Letters of Sulpicius Severus, the Dialogus by the same author, bits of the same author's Chronicle and Gregory the Great's much later biography of Martin. My rationale for this is that these works aren't generally as well known as the Life, but give important supplementary information. My observations on my preliminary reading of this material can be found in my Return to St. Martin post from last July.

translation as a gift to the two St. Martin-in-the-Field churches' I've attended (in West Toronto and London, Ont). However, last year, it got into my head that I'd like to add the other sources which discuss St. Martin such as the

So, the Letters are first. These are, presumably, part of a larger collection of letters which have not survived. I suspect that these letters survive because they were preserved with manuscripts which also contained the Life (I will check on that, of course). By any measure, they are peculiar. They pick up where the Life leaves off. Indeed, the First Letter purports to answer sceptical critics of the Life and of St. Martin, while St. Martin was still alive. In this letter, Sulpicius Severus rebukes an critic who scoffed at Martin's presumed status as a holy man because he had been injured in a fire whereas, if he was truly blessed and/or powerful, he should have escaped injury. The criticism exploits the common view of the monk as holy man who had almost magical powers because of God's favour. Sulpicius Severus rebukes this conception and, of course, defends his hero.

The next two letters deal with Martin's death. The Second Letter passes on the bad news to a colleague. Severus is in the depths of grief, so the writing is highly rhetorical and emotional. Modern readers might be a little put off by the extremes of emotion and rhetorical flash. Indeed, to judge from the introduction of the Third Letter, so were some contemporaries including, possibly, Severus' own mother. The Third Letter gives a more sober account of Martin's death, albeit with flashes of the grief from the previous letter.

My procedure with the Letters will be to break them into digestible chunks, publish the translation and commentary together. So, this will take a few weeks to manage, but I hope you'll enjoy exposure to the story of St. Martin as told by Sulpicius Severus.

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