See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of Sts. Cosmas & Damian (11)
The act of healing is an important theme in Christian literature. According to Faith Wallis in Medieval Medicine, “Christianity was a religion of healing” and in the Medieval period, when medicine was still in its infancy, the saints were the figurative “healers.” Healing is a common trait among saints because it recalls the powers of Christ from the New Testament, and it remained an important miracle toward canonization. The saints included in this section are all connected through their plague healing powers. Whether it is through ritual acts such as processions or direct contact healing, each of these saints alleviated and cure plague victims.
The major source of information on the life of St. Roch comes from the anonymous and undated account of the saint’s life known as the Acta Breviora. It is not until Francesco Diedo’s Vita of St. Roch the Confessor, that we have any possible dates or points of reference for his life. Both hagiographic entries were created to celebrate St. Roch’s life and promote his cult to further his canonization, not to provide accurate historical data. Due to the vague timeline provided by the Acta Breviora and Vita of St. Roch, it is difficult to place the commencement St. Roch’s plague-centered cult.
St. Roch was a wealthy French youth from the town of Montpellier and he no longer wanted the burden of wealth, so he sold his goods and left on a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way, Roch stopped in various towns, healing those afflicted with the plague. According to the Acta Breviora:
After he came to the sick and blessed them all in the name of Jesus Christ, he fearlessly touched each patient that they declared immediately that a saintly man had come among them, because he had already extinguished so much pain of the fever throughout the entire hospital…And he delivered from the most savage plague through the sign of the cross and the memory of the Passion of Jesus Christ whomever he touched.
*Note: The author emphasized that St. Roch’s actions were through Jesus Christ. Saints could only perform miracles because God allowed it. Saints themselves are NOT worshiped, they are venerated (honored) as people doing God’s work.
During his stay in Piacenza, St. Roch heard the voice of an angel tell him that he will wake up the next morning inflicted with the plague. The plague is described as hitting him like a “deadly dart” in his hip bone. In order not to be a nuisance to those around him, Roch left the hospital in favor of isolation in a nearby forest. There, a dog kept Roch alive, and after some time, God decided to free him from the plague and told him to begin his journey homeward. Once he returned home, Roch, emaciated and unrecognized, was mistaken for a stranger and a spy. He was put into prison and remained there until his death, five years later. When he died, a tablet was found in his cell inscribed with these words: “Those suffering from the plague, fleeing to the protection of Roch, will escape that most violent contagion.”
Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: St. Roch in Art (13)
- Marshall, Louise. “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994).
- Vaslef, Irene. “The Role of St. Roch as a Plague Saint: A Late Medieval Hagiographic Tradition.” Ph.D. diss., The Catholic University of America, 1984.
- Vauchez, André. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge University Press: 1997.
- Wallis, Faith, ed. Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010.