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