Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Sulpicius Severus

[Saint Sulpicius Severus]Article

[Disciple of Saint Martin] He was born in Aquitain, not at Agen, as Scaliger, Vossius, Baillet, etc. have falsely inferred from a passage of his history, but near Toulouse. That he was of a very rich and illustrious Roman family, we are assured by the two Paulinus’s, and Gennadius. His youth he spent in studying the best Roman authors of the Augustan age, upon whom he formed his style, not upon the writers of his own time: he also applied himself to the study of the laws, and surpassed all his contemporaries in eloquence at the bar. His wife was a lady of a consular family, whom he lost soon after their marriage, but he continued to enjoy a very great estate which he had inherited by her. His mother-in-law Bassula loved him constantly as if he had been her own son: they continued to live several years in the same house, and had in all things the same mind. The death of his beloved consort contributed to wean his heart from the world: in which resolution he seems to have been confirmed by the example and exhortations of his pious mother-in-law. His conversion from the world happened in the same year with that of Saint Paulinus of Nola, though probably somewhat later: and Saint Paulinus mentions that Sulpicius was younger than himself, and at that time (that is, about the year 392) in the flower of his age De Prato imagines Sulpicius to have been ten years younger than Saint Paulinus, consequently that he was converted in the thirty-second year of his age. Whereas Saint Paulinus distributed his whole fortune amongst the poor at once; Sulpicius reserved his estates to himself and his heirs, employing the yearly revenue on the poor, and in other pious uses, so that he was no more than a servant of the church and the poor to keep accounts for them. But he sold so much of them as was necessary to discharge him of all obligations to others. Gennadius tells us that he was promoted to the priesthood; but from the silence of Saint Paulinus, Saint Jerom, and others, Tillemont and De Prato doubt of the circumstance. Sulpicius suffered much from the censures of friends who condemned his retreat, having chosen for his solitude a cottage at Primuliacus, a village now utterly unknown in Aquitain, probably in Languedoc. In his kitchen nothing was ever dressed but pulse and herbs, boiled without any seasoning, except a little vinegar. He ate also coarse bread. He and his few disciples had no other beds but straw or sackcloth spread on the ground. He set at liberty several of his slaves, and admitted them and some of his old servants to familiar intercourse and conversation. About the year 394, not long after his retreat, he made a visit to Saint Martin at Tours, and was so much taken with his saintly comportment, and edified by his pious discourses and counsels, that he became from that time his greatest admirer, and regulated his conduct by his direction. Ever after he visited that great saint once or twice almost every summer as long as he lived, and passed some time with him, that he might study more perfectly to imitate his virtues. He built and adorned several churches. For two which he founded at Primuliacus, he begged some relics of Saint Paulinus, who sent him a piece of the cross on which our Saviour was crucified, with the history of its miraculous discovery by Saint Helena. This account Sulpicius inserted in his ecclesiastical history. These two saints sent frequent presents to each other of poor garments or the like things, suitable to a penitential life, upon which they make in their letters beautiful pious reflections, that show how much they were accustomed to raise their thoughts to God from every object. Our saint recommending to Saint Paulinus a cook, facetiously tells him that he was utterly a stranger to the art of making sauces, and to the use of pepper, or any such incentives of gluttony, his skill consisting only in gathering and boiling herbs in such a manner that monks, who only eat after having fasted long, would find delicious. He prays his friend to treat him as he would his own son, and wishes he could himself have served him and his family in that quality. In the year 399 Saint Paulinus wrote to our saint that he hoped to have met him at Rome, whither he went to keep the feast of the prince of the apostles, and where he had staid ten days, but without seeing anything but the tombs of the apostles, before which he passed the mornings, and the evenings were taken up by friends who called to see him. Sulpicius answered, that an indisposition had hindered him from undertaking that journey. Of the several letters mentioned by Gennadius, which Sulpicius Severus wrote to the devout virgin Claudia, his sister, two are published by Baluze. Both are strong exhortations to fervour and perseverance. In the first our saint assures her that he shed tears of joy in reading her letter, by which he was assured of her sincere desire of serving God.

In a letter to Aurelius the deacon, he relates that one night in a dream he saw Saint Martin ascend to heaven in great glory, and attended by the holy priest Clarus, his disciple, who was lately dead: soon after, two monks arriving from Tours, brought news of the death of Saint Martin. He adds, that his greatest comfort in the loss of so good a master, was a confidence that he should obtain the divine blessings by the prayers of Saint Martin in heaven. Saint Paulinus mentions this vision in an inscription in verse, which he made and sent to be engraved on the marble altar of the church of Primuliacus. Saint Sulpicius wrote the life of the incomparable Saint Martin, according to Tillemont and most others, before the death of that saint: but De Prato thinks that though it was begun before, it was neither finished nor published till after, his death. The style of this piece is plainer and more simple than that of his other writings. An account of the death of Saint Martin, which is placed by De Prato in the year 400, is accurately given by Saint Sulpicius, in a letter to Bassula, his mother-in-law, who then lived at Triers. The three dialogues of our saint are the most florid of all his writings. In the first Posthumain, a friend who had spent three years in the deserts of Egypt and the East, and was then returned, relates to him and Gallus, a disciple of Saint Martin, (with whom our saint then lived under the same roof,) the wonderful examples of virtue he had seen abroad. In the second dialogue Gallus recounts many circumstances of the life of Saint Martin, which Saint Sulpicius had omitted in his history of that saint. In the third, under the name of the same Gallus, several miracles wrought by Saint Martin are proved by authentic testimonies. The most important work of our saint is his abridgment of sacred history from the beginning of the world down to his own time in the year 400. The elegance, conciseness, and perspicuity with which this work is compiled, have procured the author the name of the Christian Sallust, some even prefer it to the histories of the Roman Sallust, and look upon it as the most finished model extant of abridgments. His style is the most pure of any of the Latin fathers, though also Lactantius, Minutius Felix, we may almost add Saint Jerom, and Salvian of Marseilles, deserve to be read among the Latin classics. The heroic sanctity of Sulpicius Severus is highly extolled by Saint Paulinus of Nola, Paulinus of Perigueux, about the year 460, Venantius Fortunantus, and many others down to the present age. Gennadius tells us, that he was particularly remarkable for his extraordinary love of poverty and humility. After the death of Saint Martin, in 400, Saint Sulpicius Severus passed five years in that illustrious saint’s cell at Marmoutier. F. Jerom De Prato thinks that he at length retired to a monastery at Marseilles, or in that neighbourhood; because in a very ancient manuscript copy of his works, transcribed in the seventh century kept in the library of the chapter of Verona, he is twice called a monk of Marseilles. From the testimony of this manuscript, the Benedictin authors of the new treatise On the Diplomatique, and the continuators of the Literary History of France, regard it as undoubted that Sulpicius Severus was a monk at Marseilles before his death. Whilst the Alans, Sueves, and Vandals from Germany and other barbarous nations, laid waste most provinces in Gaul in 406, Marseilles enjoyed a secure peace under the government of Constantine, who, having assumed the purple, fixed the seat of his empire at Arles from the year 407 to 410. After the death of Saint Chrysostom in 407, Cassian came from Constantinople to Marseilles, and founded there two monasteries, one for men, the other for women. Most place the death of Saint Sulpicius Severus about the year 420, Baronius after the year 432; but F. Jerom De Prato about 410, when he supposes him to have been near fifty years old, saying that Gennadius, who tells us that he lived to a very great age, is inconsistent with himself. Neither Saint Paulinus nor any other writer mentions him as living later than the year 407, which seems to prove that he did not survive that epoch very many years. Guibert, abbot of Gemblours, who died in 1208, in his Apology for Sulpicius Severus, testifies that his festival was kept at Marmoutier with great solemnity on the 29th of January. Several editors of the Roman Martyrology, who took Sulpicius Severus, who is named in the calendars on this day, to have been this saint, added in his eulogium, Disciple of Saint Martin, famous for his learning and merits. Many have proved that this addition was made by the mistake of private editors, and that the saint originally meant here in the Roman Martyrology was Sulpicius Severus, bishop of Bourges; and Benedict XIV proves and declares that Sulpicius Severus, the disciple of Saint Martin, is not commemorated in the Roman Martyrology. Nevertheless, he has been ranked among the saints at Tours from time immemorial, and is honoured with a particular office on this day in the new Breviary used in all that diocess. See his works correctly printed, with various readings, notes, dissertations, and the life of this saint at Verona in 1741, in two volumes folio, by F. Jerom De Prato, an Italian Oratorian of Verona.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Sulpicius Severus”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 29 January 2013. Web. 23 July 2014. <>