Many saints’ lives are dull affairs full of praying and fasting, proselytising and general do-gooding. St. Roch’s vita has all of these elements plus a good amount of gruesomeness, mysticism, and a faithful animal friend. Born near Montpellier around 1295, his chest was miraculously marked from birth with the sign of the cross. The infant Roch was claimed to have been so devout that he refused to suckle at his mother’s breast on fast days. His life became a lifelong pilgrimage from the age of 20, following the death of his parents, and he traversed Italy helping the sick and curing victims of the plague.
All that time spent around carriers of a highly contagious, deadly disease did not do him much good, and eventually he himself caught plague. So righteous was he that he crawled (or was banished, depending on the story) into the woods to die, rather than occupy a hospital bed which could be used by someone more in need. He was sustained while in the woods by a dog who brought him food, and who would lick his sores to ease his suffering. The generous canine engineered his recovery by leading his master, a local count named Gothard, to Roch’s place of refuge in the forest.
When Roch decided to return to his home city, he was accused of being a spy and was thrown into prison by his uncle, who failed to recognise him. Presumably he felt that this was a test of his religious resolve, and so poor Roch did not inform his jailer of his identity and so died, slowly but happily, in 1327. It was said that shortly before his death an angel brought him a golden pillow in his cell, upon which was embroidered a prayer which was to be said by people wishing to invoke his aid against pestilence.
He was almost immediately venerated as a holy healer, and was said to have interceded in 1414, almost a century after his death, when plague broke out in Constance. He was canonised ‘by popular fervour’ in 1590, and is patron saint of bachelors, diseased cattle, dogs, those who have been falsely accused, invalids, Istanbul, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, pilgrims, apothecaries and second-hand dealers (and so I suspect has been very busy over the last 700 years). His feast day is 16th August.
St. Roch was widely-venerated during the Black Death, which is hardly surprising given his reputation as a healer. He is usually depicted as a pilgrim flashing the bubos ( gross, weeping sores which are a symptom of bubonic plague) on his thighs, and often has his doggy helper at heel, licking the gross, weeping sores. He frequently appears with St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr, who is also a patron of those effected by plague.