Monday, August 15, 2016

Saint Rock And The Plague

There are saints with whom those not generally conversant with Mallorca's Catholicism will nevertheless have heard of. Sant Pere (Saint Peter) or Sant Joan (John the Baptist) are just two fairly obvious examples. But there are other saints who are far more obscure. How many local Catholics might be fully up to speed with, for example, Santa Praxedis, let alone non-Catholic visitors? For the record, she's the patron of Petra, and as far I'm aware nowhere else celebrates her. Likewise we have the twin brother saints Abdon and Senen, for whom Inca held its summer fiestas last month.

While these saints mysteriously found their way into very local devotion and attained patronage status, there are certain others who, while barely known in non-Catholic circles, are widely honoured on the island. And one of these is Sant Roc, whose day is 16 August, which means, in fiesta terms, that there can be two days on the trot, as 15 August is the day of the Assumption.

In English he's known variously as Roch, Rocco or even Rock, while there is a Saint Rollox in Glasgow (the same saint). Be these names as they are, it is not untypical for there to be some doubt as to the authenticity of some saints, and in Roc's case he is almost certainly fictitious. Common tradition claims that he was born in Montpellier either in 1295 or 1350. Whichever it was, it doesn't really matter as the birth itself is mere legend.

It is, though, a useful one where Mallorca is concerned. Montpellier was the birthplace of the conqueror, Jaume I. Coming from the same city - allegedly - would not have done Roc's claims on Mallorcan devotion any harm whatsoever. As it is, a recent scholarly study of the saint concludes that he was historically implausible. A generally accepted view, if not by all Mallorcans, is that he was a derivation from a Sant Racus, who died more than six hundred years before the first year given for Roc's birth in Montpellier.

Whatever his origins, Roc was to acquire another very useful attribute for his saintly CV, and that was being a patron against the plague, of which there were once upon a time goodly amounts in Mallorca. The Sant Racus angle is significant here. He was a patron for protection against storms, and in the Occitan language (close to Catalan) this was "tempesta". The word for plague was and is "pesta". Roc was not only derived from Racus, his patronage was as well by a trick of language.

Given all this, it is perhaps understandable how he came to have the kind of reputation he now does, meaning fiestas in his honour in, for example, Alaro, Cala Ratjada and Porreres.

This does, nevertheless, invite a question as to why Sant Roc (or indeed some other saints) come to actually be honoured by having fiestas in their name. In Porreres, there are two patrons - John the Baptist and another Saint John, the Evangelist. Roc isn't as such a patron, yet there he is with the principal fiestas of the summer; John the Baptist gets a mass, and that's more or less it.

Might this all just be because August is a good or better time to hold a fiesta celebration? Possibly, but where Roc and Porreres are concerned, you do have to go back to his patronage of fighting the plague.

Sixty-four years ago, Porreres staged an exhibition. It was to celebrate a three hundredth anniversary. In 1652, the town had celebrated its first ever Sant Roc fiestas. And what was the reason for having done this? Yep, it was the plague.

Among the various documents, paintings, sculptures and what have you that were placed on exhibition in 1952 was a text that referred to the Reverend Rafael Barceló who three hundred years earlier had seemingly seen to it that the parish of Porreres would have a benefactor in the form of Sant Roc. This was because in that year "the intervention of the saint" freed Porreres from the plague. And there was no better way to celebrate the fact than have a fiesta.

Of course, not every saint who intervened in similar fashion to Roc ended up with grand fiestas. Even Sant Crist, Christ the Saint, can only stretch to an hour or so of procession every three years for having rid Alcudia of drought and famine. But Roc with his plague-healing ways was to secure for himself 364 years (and counting) of Porreres summer fiestas.

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