Detail of a woodcut featuring St Roch and an angel.

Remembering the Saints of the Plague

By Laura Hartman ~

Today, as many Western Christian churches celebrate All Saints’ Day, it seems fitting to remember the saints in the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

In Medieval and Early Modern Europe widespread suffering from the plague epidemics and general pestilence provided ample opportunity for saints to heal the sick and treat the terminally ill.  Sufferers commonly prayed to the saints to intercede for them.  Three saints that prominently grace the pages in early modern rare book collections at NLM are St. Roch, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Sebastian.

St. Roch or Rocco (lived 14th century)

As a Christian pilgrim, Roch traveled to Rome and throughout Italy healing those suffering from an outbreak of the plague.  At Piacenza he contracted the disease and withdraw to the countryside, where he drank water from a spring that miraculously arose from the ground; he 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.

Title page with a woodcut of an angel tending Roch’s sores, while a dog brings him bread.
Vita Sancti Rochi by Francesco Diedo. Mainz, Peter von Friedberg, ca.1494–1495.
Diedo’s Vita Sancti Rochi (Life of St. Roch) was first published in 1478, during an outbreak of bubonic plague in Italy in 1477–1479. The title page image features an angel tending Roch’s sores, while a dog brings him bread in his mouth.
National Library of Medicine #9412014
Title page featuring woodcuts of Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Roch.
Relatione verissima del progresso della peste di Milano by Paolo Bisciola. Ancona, Per Alessandro Benacci, 1577.
This contemporary account of the plague epidemic in Milan, details Charles Borromeo’s efforts to care for the afflicted. Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Roch adorn the title page.
National Library of Medicine #2223007R

St. Charles Borromeo (1538–1584)

While modern day Roman Catholics may recognize Charles Borromeo as an author of the first Roman Catholic catechism, he was venerated in his lifetime for his compassion to the people of Milan, during the famine and plague outbreak of 1576–1577.  Borromeo, then Archbishop of Milan, provided critical governance and care to the suffering people when the governor and many of the nobility fled the growing humanitarian crisis.  Borromeo issued guidelines to control the plague outbreak, organized makeshift hospitals, used his own vast fortune to provide food for the hungry, and personally attended the poor and sick.  He never contracted the plague and credited his generally healthy nature to a regular regimen of fasting and prayer.

Title page featuring a coat of arms.
Della cura della peste by Charles Borromeo. Vicenza, Francesco Grossi, 1630.
Editions of Charles Borromeo’s instructions for treating the plague were still being produced decades later.
National Library of Medicine #2322031R
Title page featuring a coat of arms.
Exenterationis cadaueris illustrissimi Cardinalis Borrhomaei Mediolani Archiespiscopi, by Carcano Leone and Giovanni Battista. Mediolani, Ex typographia Michaelis Tini: ad instantiam Petri Tini, 1584.
Autopsy report conducted on the death of Charles Borromeo.
National Library of Medicine #8804669

St. Sebastian (circa 256–288)

Sebastian was a Christian martyr who was sentenced to die for his faith by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ordered him tied to a post and shot to death by arrows. During the Middle Ages he became a popular saint to pray to during plague epidemics.  He epitomizes the suffering Christian and some see similarities between his arrow wounds and the bulbous sores of the plague.  His popularity increased during the plague epidemics in Europe.

A complex image of an armored figure holding a bow and arrows with his foot on a dragon surrounded by praying people.
Oratio ad depellendam pestem, circa 16th or 17th century.
A prayer sheet to be used during times of plague epidemic. St. Sebastian is at center, flanked by Sts. Adrian, Anthony, Benno, and Roch.
National Library of Medicine #1013927655
The image shows two women ministering to a man wounded by arrows.
Love AIDS people poster. Washington, D.C., Shoshin Society, ca. 1989.
This poster featuring a 17th century painting of St. Sebastian, likens the AIDS epidemic to the bubonic plague epidemic of the Middle Ages.
National Library of Medicine #101438940

Many miraculous cures have been attributed to saints throughout history.  Besides Sts. Roch, Charles Borromeo, and Sebastian, the NLM stacks are home to many other saints waiting in the wings.  To see more, try searching “saints” or individual saint names in NLM Digital Collections and NLM Catalog.

You can arrange a tour of the NLM and its incunabula collection by contacting the NLM Visitor Center. For information on access to the collections explore our website.

Laura Hartman is Rare Book Cataloger in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

4 comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.