The Saints of Great Mortality


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

During the Great Mortality, when God’s earthly representatives seemed both unwilling and unable to help those afflicted by the plague, people turned to other intercessors for assistance. In particular, they turned to specific saints. The saints whom medieval people prayed to were considered intercessors or appropriate figures to turn to for help.

Image of Saint Sebastian Church
By one count, there are over 100 saints who were specifically identified as interceding in matters of the plague. (Image: giuseppelombardo/Shutterstock)

In the face of the Great Mortality, many saints were dusted off and brought front and center. These included Saint Sebastian, Saint Roch, and Saint Rose of Viterbo, among many, many others. By one count, there are over 100 saints who were specifically identified as interceding in matters of the plague in the wake of the first wave of the Great Pestilence.

Learn more about artistic responses to the Black Death.

Saint Sebastian against Mars

Saint Sebastian is usually depicted tied to a post or pillar, with several—sometimes dozens—of arrows piercing his body. Sometime around the end of the third century, Sebastian was a member of the Roman military. The empire at this time was still firmly pagan and polytheistic, and this new upstart Christian religion was considered dangerous and subversive. When Sebastian was discovered to be a Christian, he was imprisoned. 

Illustration of Saint Sebastian tied to a tree while being pierced by arrows
Saint Sebastian was executed by arrows. (Image: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock)

While in prison, Sebastian managed to convert a bunch of other people to Christianity, and, then, because he refused to renounce his faith, he was executed by being tied to a post and shot with arrows. But what does getting martyred by multiple arrow shots have to do with the Great Mortality? 

The Roman god Mars is very often represented holding a bow, ready to shoot an arrow. And while those arrows were certainly instruments of war, they also could spread disease. And, according, to an earlier Christian chronicler named Paul the Deacon, it was the intercession of Saint Sebastian in the year 680 that caused the end of an epidemic that had been ravaging Rome.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Saint Roch, the Fasting Baby

Saint Roch was born into a noble family in Montpellier, France, near the end of the 13th century. His parents were very religious, and so was the young Roch, who supposedly went so far as to fast along with his mother while he was still an infant—that is, on days when she fasted in religious observance, he reportedly refused to breastfeed.

Statue of Saint Roch
Before he was kicked out of the city, Saint Roch helped many ill people in Rome. (Image: Patrice Bon/Public domain)

When his parents died, Roch set off for Rome. There, he found a great illness ravaging the city. He immediately set about helping those who were ill, volunteering at various hospitals and, reportedly, affecting miraculous cures by praying over many who were sick and near the point of death.

Then he himself got sick and was kicked out of the city. He then retreated to the woods, where he made himself a little hut and was befriended by a dog. The dog’s master, a nobleman, became Saint Roch’s acolyte. As is the case in so many saints’ lives stories, he later died in prison.

Given that most of his story is about dealing with illness, Saint Roch makes a great deal of sense as a plague intercessor. He’s not attested, however, until around 1391, and in those accounts, we learn of a man named Roch who was very active during a confirmed outbreak of plague in Italy around 1376. Roch became the go-to saint to pray to whenever plague showed up. 

Learn more about the Plague saints and popular religion.

The Church Beatifies the Saints

Roch is an example of how religious practices sometimes get put in place from the bottom up rather than the top down. In other words, Roch was venerated as a saint and prayed to for deliverance from the plague by thousands of people long before he was formally declared a saint by the institution of the Church itself. 

People started venerating him in Italy and Germany shortly after the first waves of the plague started sweeping across the continent, but he wasn’t officially declared a saint until Pope Gregory XIV decreed him to be one around 1590—around two centuries after his veneration by what the Church calls popular fervor began.

Saint Roch was sometimes added to a roster of helper saints that came into being shortly after the Black Death swept through the Rhineland. Again, the grouping together of these popular intercessory saints into what eventually became known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers arose from general interest and acclaim.

Eventually, the Church would officially recognize the Fourteen Holy Helpers, which included figures like saints Barbara, Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch, who interceded in cases of fever, sudden death, and childbirth, among other things. Saints Christopher and Giles were on the roster long before Roch got added, and they were specifically invoked as intercessors against the plague.

Common Questions about the Saints of Great Mortality

Q: Why was Saint Sebastian prayed to during the Great Mortality?

Sebastian was killed by arrows that could have been carriers of disease, and his intercession led to the end of an epidemic, thus making him one of the saints that Medieval people prayed to during the plague.

Q: Why did Saint Roch stop helping the ill in Rome?

Saint Roch got sick and was got kicked out of town. So, he lived in a hut in the woods until he died. Because he helped so many ill people, he became one of the many saints that Medieval people prayed to during the plague.

Q: Are religious practices always initiated by the Church?

No. For example, many of the saints that Medieval people prayed to during the Great Mortality were chosen by people. As these saints became more popular, eventually, the Church recognized them as saints.

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