demons purged in crapping & farting in Life of Saint Martin

demons attacking Saint Anthony

If you think demons have grabbed hold of you, do something about it. Purge the demons from your soul. The widely lauded and influential fourth-century saint Martin of Tours, also known as Martin the Merciful, might be able to help. According to accounts dating from no later than 397 GC, Saint Martin drove away demons through crapping and farting.

One day Martin saw a demon go into a cook. The demon caused the cook to bite himself madly. Martin bravely put his fingers into the raving cook’s mouth and said:

If you can, devour this offered prey, you murderous wolf.
Food you would seek elsewhere is freely given to your teeth.

{ Si potes, ecce vora oblatam, lupe noxie, praedam.
Quam peteres alibi datur ultro dentibus esca. }[1]

The teeth drew back, for the demon was afraid to have them touch Martin’s holy hand. The demon-possessed cook felt a sharp pain inside himself. The demon was seeking to flee. It was afraid to exit through the cook’s mouth because Martin’s hand was there. It thus took another way:

The demon exited filthily in the way filth does by defecation.
In its foulness it left behind foul traces of its service.

{ foeda ministerii foedus vestigia linquens,
sordidus egreditur qua sordibus est via fluxu. }

Demons befoul persons with sin. If your crap smells, you have a problem. We are all sinners in need of Saint Martin’s mercy. While wearing a cloth mask to protect yourself from COVID, call on Saint Martin. Then pray to take a vigorous crap.

On another occasion, an arrogant monk named Anatolius was criticizing his fellow monks and making outrageous claims. Anatolius, dressed in golden clothing and a jeweled crown, even asserted that he himself was Christ. The humble Saint Martin kept silent. “The slippery snake then repeated his mordant hissings {lubricus hinc repetit mordacia sibila serpens}.”[2] Martin explained that angels had taken Christ up into the air and that Christ would return with marks of his crucifixion. Until he saw those marks, Martin wouldn’t believe anyone to be Christ. The pompous Anatolius dressed as a king was reduced to his substance:

Then the ineffective enemy shuddered under the lash of these words.
The airy bringer of pestilence, formed of air, slipped away,
resuming his proper form, and dissolved into nothingness.
He fled from sight like smoke in a breeze,
the insubstantial image of a shadowy shape flew away.
Barred from sight, he emptied himself of vomit in his cell.
Discerned by these signs, he made his way crapping
and farting as he fled with a stink as his attendant.

{ Mox inimicus iners, vibratus verbere verbi,
pestifer, aërius, tenuata per aethera lapsus,
in propriam speciem rediens, ad inane solutus,
effugit ex oculis, liquidas quasi fumus in auras,
et levis umbriferae volitavit imago figurae.
Visibus exclusus cellam paedore cruminans,
agnitus indiciis, sua per vestigia sordens
et foetore sibi comitante satellite fugit }

Vomiting, crapping, and farting are ordinary means for purging demons. Be grateful that you are able to engage in these practices.[3]

The fifth-century historian and bishop Gregory of Tours documented that oil from Saint Martin’s tomb could expel demons. Gregory reported the story of Aredius, an abbot at Limoges:

Since the oil had restored many possessed persons to good health, he placed some of it on the head of one man who had a more hideous demon, so I think. Immediately the man expelled the demon by flow from his bowels.

{ Sed et cum multos energumenos exinde restituisset sanitati, uni qui atrociorem, ut credo, daemonem habebat, super caput de oleo posuit: illico deamonem per fluxum ventris egessit }[4]

Was it defecation or flatulence that worked this exorcism? Let philologists debate these technical matters. Ordinary folks should simply praise the effect and hope to duplicate it.

Purging demons through crapping and farting isn’t a peculiarity of the ancient cult of Saint Martin of Tours. Perceiving “a connection between one’s bowels and one’s salvation” is deeply ingrained in Mediterranean culture.[5] Belief that bodily processes can help to cure sicknesses of the soul shows confidence in material nature. Nature isn’t merely a constraint on mind. It also keeps the soul sane.

misericord showing two men crapping

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[1] Venantius Fortunatus, Life of Saint Martin {Vita Sancti Martini} 1.462-3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Kay (2020). Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin text of Vita Sancti Martini. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Fortunatus’s Vita Sancti Martini 1.469-70.

Sulpicius Severus, a learned lawyer and orator from Aquitania in Western Gaul, completed a prose Vita Sancti Martin in 397. That was the year that Martin, Bishop of Tours, died. Sulpicius met Martin as well as monks in Martin’s circle. Here is Sulpicius’s version:

Martin inserted his fingers into his mouth, and said, “If you have any power, devour these.” As if red-hot iron had entered his jaws, he indeed drew his teeth far away and took care not to touch the fingers of the saintly man. When he was compelled by punishments and tortures to flee out of the possessed body, he had no power of escaping by the mouth. He was cast out by means of flow from his bowels. It left behind disgusting traces.

{ digitos ei Martinus in os intulit: “si habes,” inquit, “aliquid potestatis, hos devora.” tum vero, ac si candens ferrum faucibus accepisset, longe reductis dentibus digitos beati viri vitabat attingere: et cum fugere de obsesso corpore poenis et cruciatibus cogeretur nec tamen exire ei per os liceret, foeda relinquens vestigia fluxu ventris. }

Sulpicius Severus, Vita Sancti Martini 17.7, Latin text (modified insubstantially) from Francese (c2015), English translation (modified) from Roberts (1894).

About 573 GC, Fortunatus adapted into verse Sulpicius Severus’s Vita Sancti Martin. Fortunatus also drew upon an earlier verse life of Martin that Paulinus of Périgueux had composed in the fifth century. Fortunatus, compared to Paulinus, emphasized Martin mediating between God and humans. Pollmann (2017), Chapter 9. Like Prudentius with his Psychomachia, Fortunatus sought to reform epic and its violence against men:

Fortunatus creates a new kind of epic that calls forth a new response from its reader. Combining epic amplitude with lyric refinement and epigrammatic wit and concision the VSM {Vita Sancti Martini} conducts its reader on a pilgrimage of meditation on the merits of Martin.

Roberts (2002) p. 187. Fortunatus’s Vita Sancti Martin is written in hexameters, the meter of epic poetry. Fortunatus also wrote short poems about Saint Martin. These different works present Martin differently. Friedrich & Gärtner (2020).

About 600 GC, Fortunatus wrote a life of Radegund of Thuringia. Fortunatus attributed to Radegund a similar demon-purging act:

A certain woman labored so heavily under an invasion of the enemy that the rebelling foe could scarcely be brought to the holy one. She commanded the adversary to lie prostrate on the pavement with fear for itself. The moment the blessed woman spoke, it threw itself onto the earth, for she frightened the one who greatly feared her. When the holy one, full of faith, walked on the woman’s neck, the adversary left her by a flow from her bowels.

{ Mulier quaedam dum inimici invasione graviter laboraret, et vix ad sanctam potuisseut hostem rebellem adducere, imperat adversario, ut se suo cum timore pavimento prosterneret. Mox ad beatae sermonem in terra se deiciens, qui timebatur extimuit. Cui sancta plena fide cum calcasset in cervice, fluxu ventris egressus est. }

Venantius Fortunatus, The Life of Holy Radegund {De vita sanctae Radegundis} para. 30, Latin text from Leo (1881), English translation (modified, including to remove sexist references to the demon) from McNamara & Halborg (1992), p. 82.

In the 990s, the English priest Ælfric of Eynsham wrote a homily for Martin’s feast day and a life of Martin. Ælfric explicitly cited Sulpicius as a source. Mertens (2017) pp. 106, 128. Perhaps reflecting the long history of disparaging men’s penises, Ælfric modified Sulpicius’s account to have the demon purged through the man’s penis:

The madman then turned away his jaws
from the saint’s hand, as if from hot iron,
and the accursed spirit departed from the man
out through his genitals, with shameful flight.

{ Se wóda ða awende aweg his ceaflas
fram ðære halgan handa. swilce fram hátum isene.
and se awyrgeda gast gewát of ðam men
út ðurh his gesceapu. mid sceandlicum fleame } 287-90

Ælfric of Eynsham, Catholic Homily for Martinmas, vv. 287-90, Old English text and modern English translation from Mertens (2017) pp. 242-3. In his Life of Saint Martin, Ælfric stated that the demon avoided the mouth, “but foully went out through his anus {ac fúllice ferde þurh his forðgang ut}.” Ælfric, Life of Saint Martin, v. 549, Old English text and modern English translation from id., pp. 310-1. According to Mertens, “in his homily, Ælfric probably preferred the word (genitals {gesceapu}) for the alliteration.” Id. p. 242, note to v. 290. Referring to the demon departing through the man’s penis would have made for a more shockingly telling story in a homily. Philologists have historically obscured the importance of men’s genitals.

[2] Fortunatus, Vita Sancti Martini 2.308, Latin text and English translation from Kay (2020). The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced from Vita Sancti Martini 2.344-51, but with my changes to the English translation.

Kay interprets the subject in this purging to be the devil and interpolates references to the devil in his translation. The Latin text, however, doesn’t explicitly distinguish between the devil and Anatolius, a wicked character from the previous story. Moreover, “he emptied himself of vomit in his cell {cellam paedore cruminans}” (v. 2.349) suggests to me a monk returning to his cell.

This story also comes from Sulpicius Severus’s Vita Sancti Martin. In Sulpicius’s original, the false Christ is explicitly identified as the devil. Martin says he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds of crucifixion. Cf. the disciple Thomas’s criterion for recognizing Christ in John 20:25. Martin’s words reveal the devil pretending to be Christ:

As these words, the devil immediately vanished like smoke. It filled the cell with such a stink as to leave indubitable indications of what the devil’s being truly is.

{ ad hanc ille vocem statim ut fumus evanuit et cellulam tanto foetore complevit, ut indubia indicia relinqueret diabolum se fuisse. }

Sulpicius Severus, Vita Sancti Martini 24.8, Latin text (modified insubstantially) from Francese (c2015), my English translation, benefiting from that of Roberts (1894).

[3] In the second half of the seventh century, Chrodobert of Tours disparaged Importunus of Paris. Chrodobert associated Importunus’s being a deceiver with farting:

There is no greater deceiver.
He grunts at the ankle,
he inflates his cheeks and howls,
he farts and runs around in a sweat,
he spits out stinking phlegm.

{ Maior nullis talis falsator.
Grunnit post talone,
Buccas inflat in rudore,
Crebat et currit in sudore,
Fleummas iactat in pudore. }

Formulae from Sens preserved in Paris, B.N. lat. 4627, Letter 4 in correspondence, ll. 53-7, Latin text and English translation from Tyrrell (2012) p. 177. Both Chrodobert and Importunus were bishops. Some scholars Latinize the Germanic name Chrodobertus / Chrodobert to Frodebertus / Frodebert. Both Chrodobert and Importunus likely knew Fortunatus’s Vita Sancti Martini. Farting doesn’t imply that a person is a deceiver. All persons fart, even women.

[4] Gregory of Tours, Book of the Glory of Blessed Confessings {Liber de gloria beatorum confessorum} 9, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 71:836, English translation (modified) from Van Dam (2004) p. 26. Id. translates “per fluxum ventris” as “in a blast of air from his bowels,” i.e. farting. Gregory of Tours wrote many accounts of miracles. De Nie (2015).

According to Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks {Historia Francorum}, a malicious priest rebelled against Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Clermont late in the fifth century. Plotting to drag Bishop Sidonius out of his church, the rebellious priest felt the call of nature:

He went into the bathroom. While he was straining to purge his bowels, he gave up his soul instead.

{ Ingressus autem in secessum suum, dum ventrem purgare nititur, spiritum exalavit. }

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks {Historia Francorum} 2.23, Latin text from Krusch (1884), my English translation, benefiting from that of Thorpe (1974).

Death by bowel movement had an eminent predecessor in Christian theological history. The Christian priest Arius, who founded late in the third century what became known as the bitterly controversial Arian heresy, also reportedly died from a traumatic bowel movement. Socrates of Constantinople / Socrates Scholasticus {Σωκράτης ὁ Σχολαστικός}, Church History {Historia Ecclesiastica / Ἐκκλησιαστική Ἱστορία} 1.38 (“The Death of Arius”). Socrates finished this history in 439.

[5] Moreira (2010) p. 80. Moreira observed:

Gregory of Tours’s world of purgative-driven salvation is never considered in studies of purgatory. Yet his perspective on health and salvation is an important dimension in our understanding of what purgatory was to become: a place in which bodies were made healthy through the application of the medicine of purgation. Gregory’s thinking on health and miracles was entirely theological and even eschatological. Gregory saw God’s power, and that of his saints, in every facet of his environment; and that environment was replete with evidence that God purged the faithful of bodily infirmities and spiritual sickness in preparation for salvation.

Id. pp. 79-80 (footnote omitted). Purgatory certainly was not invented in the twelfth century. Cf. Le Goff (1981).

[images] (1) Demons attacking Saint Anthony. “The Torment of Saint Anthony.” Painting dated 1487 and attributed to Michelangelo. Preserved as accession # AP 2009.01 in the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Misericord showing two men praying and crapping. From sixteenth-century stalls in the Basilica of Saint Materne in Walcourt, Belgium. Image thanks to Jean-Pol Grandmont and Wikimedia Commons. A late-fifteenth-century misericord in the Saint Sulpitius Church in Diest, Belgium, depicts a man giving himself an enema. A misericord (S17) in Tewkesbury Abbey, England, shows a man farting. Here’s a large collection of photographs of misericords.


De Nie, Giselle, ed. and trans. 2015. Gregory of Tours: Lives and Miracles. The Life of the Fathers. The Miracles of the Martyr Julian. The Miracles of Bishop Martin. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 39. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Francese, Christopher, ed. c2015. Sulpicius Severus. The Life of Saint Martin of Tours. Dickinson College Commentaries. Online.

Friedrich, Enno and Ursula Gärtner. 2020. “The Many Martins of Venantius Fortunatus. Venantius Fortunatus’ Martin-Poems as Instances of Individual Appropriation and Literary Offers of Ritual-Like Experience.” Arys. Antigüedad, religiones y sociedades. 18: 181-211.

Kay, N. M, ed. and trans. 2020. Venantius Fortunatus: Vita Sancti Martini. Prologue and Books 1.-2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Review by Enno Friedrich.

Krusch, Bruno, ed. 1884. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingiciarum 1.1, Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X. Hannover: Hahn.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy. Web-native presentation.

Le Goff, Jacques. 1981. La Naissance du Purgatoire. Paris: Gallimard. Arthur Goldhammer’s English translation, 1983. The Birth of Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McNamara, Jo Ann, and John E. Halborg, ed. and trans., with E. Gordon Whatley. 1992. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mertens, Andre. 2017. The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours: Edition and Study. Universitätsverlag Göttingen: Open Access.

Moreira, Isabel. 2010. Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollmann, Karla. 2017. The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roberts, Alexander, trans. 1894. “Sulpitius Severus on the Life of St. Martin.” In A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume 11. New York.

Roberts, Michael. 2002. “Venantius Fortunatus’s Life of Saint Martin.” Traditio. 57:129–187.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1974. Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. Harmondsworth Middlesex England: Penguin Books.

Tyrrell, Vida Alice. 2012. Merovingian Letters and Letter Writers. Ph.D. Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. Review by Ralph W. Mathisen.

Van Dam, Raymond, trans. 2004. Gregory of Tours. Glory of the Confessors. 2nd ed; 1st ed., 1988. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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