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29.2.Yuzwa

Sulpicius Severus' Life of Saint Martin seems to come to the most abrupt of conclusions; the reader is left wanting, the Life unfinished while Martin yet lives. The narrative of Martin's life extends beyond the bounds of Sulpicius' biography into a series of three Letters, which narrate Martin's eventual death. However, this compositional shift from narrative biography to the letter is not one whose motives are immediately self-evident. It is a literary re-packaging which demands explanation. This paper therefore addresses itself to the complex of questions which arise from Sulpicius' decision to take up the letter form in an ostensibly hagiographical context. Jacques Fontaine explains these supplemental texts as essentially apologetic. Clare Stancliffe suggests similar, arguing that they "grew out of the Vita, completing and defending its portrayal of Martin" (Stancliffe 1983, 83). I do not deny this basic interpretation; nevertheless, I would suggest that the problem of Martin in Gaul and the apparently negative reception of Martinian asceticism there are for Sulpicius primarily problems of interpretation, problems occasioned by the inability of his audience to read as Sulpicius would have them do. At their core, these supplementary letters take the act of reading as their primary focus. I argue that the letter form is particularly suited to such an end. For, conceived most simply, what a letter does is introduce a second person – the addressee and primary reader – into the narrative space of the text. "The epistolary form is unique in making the reader . . . almost as important an agent in the narrative as the writer" (Altman 1982, 88). One feature which marks the epistolary genre, therefore, is its formal tendency to foreground the act of reading and the narrative presence of the reader. Whereas in the Life the audience is external to the text, a passive witness to the miraculous deeds of Martin, in the Letters the primary reader is its recipient, directly addressed and explicitly invited to share in Martin's intercession. This is significant for Sulpicius because in the Martinian corpus he attempts to set out a method of reading, granting the reader an essential role in constituting the text's meaning. In particular, he expects his readers to understand Martin in the context of prior exempla, just as he expects his readers to take this text which reproduces Martin's life as an exemplum for their own. The Letters themselves serve as examples of how to read in an exemplary mode and demonstrate, moreover, the salvific benefits which accrue to those who would do so.

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