Saint Roch: The Burlesque Saint of Bad Knees and (Maybe) Pilgrims

One of the wonderful things about following the Camino de Santiago (the Chemin de Saint Jacques) across France is that almost all of the churches and chapels are open, all the time.

In Spain, to my disappointment, most of the churches were locked, or charged entrance fees. The logical part of me understands; with a ten-fold or more flow of pilgrims, and a tough economy, the upkeep and maintenance of an open chapel along the Camino Frances would be much harder than along the Via Podiensis. But still, these are sacred spaces specifically built for pilgrims, and it’s rather un-church-like to charge admission.

However, that’s not the point here.

If you venture into the churches and cathedrals of the Camino, you’ll notice a lot of saints. They’re depicted in the windows, on the walls, and tucked into every spare corner. These men-and a surprising number of women-were the object lessons and moral guides of an earlier, pre-literate time.

You may notice that a particular saint shows up often among the statues and the paintings. He’s dressed as a pilgrim, with a cloak and a floppy hat and often even the scallop shell of Saint James. But he’s not Saint James.

You can tell because this particular saint is always standing a certain way.

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Saint Roch and his easily-recognizable thigh

“Why is he showing so much leg?” I asked Eric, early in our adventure.

Because no matter how simple or elaborate his presentation, Saint Roch is always, always hiking up his robe and showing off his (usually well-muscled) thigh.

The patron saint of burlesque, maybe?

It took a little time to get the story straight (and in English). Like many stories that are 800 years old, many of the details are . But here’s how it goes:

Saint Roch was probably a French noble in the early fourteenth century. The legends say that he was marked from birth by a red cross on his chest, a sign of his piety even as a small child. When he was twenty, both his parents died, and Roch gave up his inheritance and his position in the community, sold all of his possessions, and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. (hence his pilgrim garb) This being the Middle Ages, there were plagues and mysterious illnesses afflicting many of the towns along the way. Roch stopped often and cared for the sick and dying in Italy, often healing them miraculously either by touch or the sign of the cross.

But hanging around contagious people has its price. Eventually Roch contracted the plague himself, and he went to the woods to die. He built a shelter of branches, and a spring of water rose miraculously from the ground to provide him with a steady supply of fresh water. Then a dog—the hunting dog of a local nobleman—began to bring him bread. (okay, that explains why he’s always with a dog) The dog licked his plague wounds, which began to heal. (ah, he’s not flashing the audience; he’s showing off a plague wound on his leg, of course)

Miraculously cured, Roch returned to France, where he was arrested by his uncle, who did not recognize him and accused him of being a spy. Roch did not reveal his true identity, because he did not want to glorify himself or draw attention to himself. He died, still in prison, five years later.

I loved Saint Roch, and the quirky, illogical flow of his story. I looked for him everywhere we went. And he really was everywhere; Saint Roch is a favorite saint of pilgrims. Perhaps for this reason, or because of the floppy hat and walking stick, many people consider Saint Roch as the patron saint of pilgrims, although the reliable Church sources give that distinction to Saint James himself.

Saint Roch is definitely a guy to keep around on your Camino, though, as the patron saint not only of dogs (of course), but also of knee problems. So think of him every time you’re descending into one of those steep French valleys.

Or stop in one of his chapels and just admire that problem-free knee.

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Saint Roche, his dog, and his fabulous thigh in the cloister museum of Santo Domingo de  la Calzada
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