Faith and patron saints during the Black Death

Mariella Scerri
Mellieha, Malta

 

St. Roch, a patron saint of plague
Saint Roch. 1502. Francesco Francia. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain. 

The Black Death of 1348 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European history. Although it was not the first plague epidemic, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing millions indiscriminately and affecting society like no other natural calamity.1 Attempts to understand the plague began with science, but the search for answers was also conducted in spiritual realms: “Scholars could not decide whether such a deadly year was due to the vagaries of the planets or the corrupted air, but could only commit everything to God’s will.”2 As the power of the Church failed to offer protection, perception shifted from a threat that God might protect against to a tool that God wielded as punishment. Some contemporaries viewed the sickness as the end of times, equating it with Biblical plague, while others struggled to understand it in their own terms.3 Petrarch, a widely respected Italian scholar, wrote of his anxieties to a friend in 1349:

I do not deny that we deserve these misfortunes and even worse; but our forebears deserved them too, and may posterity not deserve them in turn. Therefore why is it, most Judge of judges, why is it that the seething rage of Your vengeance has fallen so particularly hard upon our times? Why is it that in times when guilt was not lacking, the lessons of punishment were withheld? While all have sinned alike, we alone bear the lash. We alone, I say; for I hear it affirmed that compared to the number we receive at present, the lashes inflicted upon all men after that most famous ark had borne the remnants of humanity upon the formless sea would have been a delight, a joke, and a respite . . . could it be that certain great truths are to be held suspect, that God does not care for mortal men? But let us drive these foolish thoughts from our mind.4

The suffering of the 1300s took on a more terrible character than memories of past times. In spite of the ministrations of the clergy, prospects looked dark for most people. The commoners continued putting their faith in God and the Church, but circumstances put their faith to the test. The Black Death “did not spare those of any age or fortune,”5 including members of the church. Medieval people believed that if the plague indeed stemmed from God, His chosen messengers could stop it, appease His anger, and lead the way to salvation and health.

Christianity held a distinctive view on illness and healing: suffering was the consequence of human sin, and disease could be both natural and divine.6 Nevertheless, epidemics were not considered “diseases of the soul” but rather community experiences that struck both the guilty and innocent.7 Therefore, communal religious practices such as processions and festivals were deemed necessary to combat the pestilential waves. The veneration of saints was also an important aspect of the communal medieval Catholic church.

People used images of saints to focus their devotions and prayers for deliverance from the plague. The saints chosen as plague intercessors had specific symbolic associations. Through the stories of saints’ lives, people found moral and religious guidance. Moreover, healing through saints’ intercessions recalled the powers of Christ from the New Testament and was a crucial factor for canonization.8

Intercessions to St. Sebastian were among the most important during the plague.9 After the Black Death, his martyrdom was seen as a symbolic sacrifice to God. Striking iconography depicts St. Sebastian as “a living lightning rod,” drawing the plague arrows away from humanity and “grounding them harmlessly into his own flesh.”10 The emphasis here is on Sebastian’s ability to draw the arrows away from intended victims into himself. This action provided hope to those suffering from the plague that they too would be delivered.11 St. Sebastian is invoked in plague-themed literature and prayers.12 Rosemary Horrox’s The Black Death includes a prayer called “A prayer made to St. Sebastian against the mortality which flourished in 1349”:

O St. Sebastian, guard and defend me, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, while I am still of sound mind; and, Martyr, diminish the strength of that vile illness called an epidemic which is threatening me. Protect and keep me and all my friends from this plague.13

The prayer continues by describing St. Sebastian’s life and martyrdom and ends with this statement:

O martyr Sebastian! Be with us always, and by your merits keep us safe and sound and protect us from plague. Commend us to the Trinity and to the Virgin Mary, so that when we die we may have our reward: to behold God in the company of martyrs.14

This prayer exemplifies the idea of a “good” death during the plague.15 It also conveys the message that the faithful should always be ready for unpredictable death by preparing one’s soul beforehand.

Sufferers of the plague also turned to St. Roch for deliverance during pestilence. As a Christian pilgrim, Roch traveled to Rome and throughout Italy, healing those afflicted with plague. According to the Acta Brevoria:

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.16

At Piacenza, Roch contracted the disease, which is described as hitting him like a “deadly dart” in his hipbone.17 So as not to be a nuisance to those around him, Roch withdrew to the countryside, where he drank water from a spring that miraculously arose from the ground. Roch was healed by a dog who licked his bulbous sores and brought him bread to sustain him. Living proof that one could survive the plague, St. Roch was often called upon by sufferers to relieve them of bubonic plague and other diseases. When he returned home emaciated and unrecognized, Roch was mistaken for a stranger and a spy. He was put in prison and remained there until his death five years later. When he died, a tablet was found in his cell bearing the inscription “those suffering from the plague, fleeing to the protection of Roch, will escape that most violent contagion.”18

Although St. Roch is not mentioned until the fifteenth century, his cult quickly gained widespread reputation in connection to the plague.19 The first confraternity devoted to the saint was founded in Clermont l’Herault in 1410, started by Bishop Jean de Cavergne.20 During plague outbreaks, many other confraternities were formed in honor of St. Roch and the competition among them was so great that in 1485, the Venetians stole his remains from Montpellier and founded the Scuola di San Rocco with their new relic.21 Relics were an important aspect of medieval worship. By venerating relics through visitation, gifts, and providing services, medieval Christians believed that they would acquire the protection and intercession of the sanctified dead.22

Another less well known saint associated with the plague is St. Bernardino of Siena. Bernardino was born near Siena, Italy, in 1380 to a powerful and wealthy family. When the plague struck Siena in 1400 he joined the confraternity of disciplinati (penitents) and organized the care of the sick and dying. After this episode, as a Franciscan friar, Bernardino focused on traveling and preaching for the rest of his life. He became known as one of the greatest medieval preachers, focusing heavily on reform and penance. He is indeed considered to be of the greatest Italian saints.

Bernardino had a direct connection to the plague through his work with the sick and his plague-related sermons.23 His sermons were powerful tools that convinced many people to reform their sinful lives. Epidemics were considered to be societal problems, so adjusting society’s values through reform was seen as a way to alleviate God’s punishment.

The Black Death of 1348 and its recurring plague waves served as a catalyst for an increase in veneration of the saints. Although there were other plague epidemics before the Black Death, none were so destructive and encompassing.24 Saints were venerated for a particular set of virtues they were deemed to possess, either events connected to their lives or previous miracles. Today many scholars mainly consider St. Sebastian and St. Roch to be important plague saints. Yet Saint Bernardino of Siena was equally significant to those who venerated him in the late medieval to early Renaissance periods.

Although outbreaks of the plague continued into the eighteenth century and plague saints continued to be venerated, attitudes towards illness began to change, and medicine eclipsed the ancient reliance on spiritual and community measures to cure diseases. Science and a secular approach to religion affected worship, but these three saints, in particular St. Sebastian and St. Roch, survived those dramatic religious revolutions.

 

Notes

  1. Samuel Cohn. “Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague in Medical History,” in Medical History. (Cambridge: Cambridge Journals Medical History, 2008), 74.
  2. Rosemary Horrox. “The Plague in Central Europe,” in The Black Death. (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994).
  3. Horrox.
  4. Francesco Petrarch. “Letters on Familiar Matters,” in The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents, ed. by John Aberth. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005).
  5. Leslie Ross. Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. Inc., 1996).
  6. Faith Wallis. Medieval Medicine: A Reader. (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010).
  7. Christine Boeckl. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2000).
  8. André Vauchez. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, trans. by Jean Birrell.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  9. Irene Vaslef. The Role of St. Roch as a Plague Saint: A Late Medieval Hagiographic Tradition. (Ph.D. dissertation: The Catholic University of America, 1984).
  10. Louise Marshall. “Confraternity and Community: Mobilizing the Sacred in Times of Plague,” in Confraternities and the Visual Arts in the Italian Renaissance. Ritual, Spectacle, Image, ed. by B. Wisch and D. Cole Ahl. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  11. John Aberth. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  12. Vaslef, 46.
  13. Horrox, 88.
  14. Horrox, 125.
  15. Horrox, 10.
  16. Vaslef, 182.
  17. Vaslef, 182.
  18. Vaslef, 88.
  19. Boeckl, 57.
  20. Vaslef, 153.
  21. Vaslef, 148.
  22. Marshall, 33.
  23. Marshall, 496.
  24. Norman Cantor. In the Wake of the Plague. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).

 

References

  • Aberth John. 2002. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge).
  • Boeckl Christine. 2000. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. (Kirksville: Truman State University Press).
  • Cantor Norman. 2002. In the Wake of the Plague. (New York: Harper Perennial).
  • Cohn Samuel. 2008. “Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague in Medical History,” in Medical History. (Cambridge: Cambridge Journals Medical History).
  • Horrox Rosemarie. 1994. “The Plague in Central Europe,” in The Black Death. (New York: Manchester University Press).
  • Marshall Louise. 2000. “Confraternity and Community: Mobilizing the Sacred in Times of Plague,” in Confraternities and the Visual Arts in the Italian Renaissance. Ritual, Spectacle, Image, ed. by B. Wisch and D. Cole Ahl. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Petrarch Francesco. 2005. “Letters on Familiar Matters,” in The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents, ed. by John Aberth. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins).
  • Ross Leslie. 1996. Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. Inc.).
  • Vaslef. Irene. 1984. The Role of St. Roch as a Plague Saint: A Late Medieval Hagiographic Tradition. (Ph.D. dissertation: The Catholic University of America).
  • Vauchez Andre. 1997. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, trans. by Jean Birrell. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Wallis Faith. 2010. Medieval Medicine: A Reader. (Toronto: University of Toronto).

 

 


 

MARIELLA SCERRI is a teacher of English who was a staff nurse and worked in the cardiology department at the Mater Dei Hospital in Malta. She holds a Master’s degree in English Language and is reading for a PhD in Medical Humanities at Leicester University. She is a member of the HUMS programme at the University of Malta.

 

 

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