Saint Guinefort: The Holy Greyhound

Dec 8, 2020 0 comments

Around the second half of the 13th century, a Dominican friar known as Stephen of Bourbon, began travelling the width and breadth of southern France documenting medieval heresies, superstitious, and heretical beliefs, which he complied into one long treatise on faith called the De septem donis Spiritu Sancti (“On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”). On the subject of superstition and idolatry, Stephen relates an incident which occurred in the diocese of Lyon. While preaching there against sorcery and hearing confessions, many peasant women told him that they carried their children to the grave St. Guinefort, a saint Stephen had never heard of before. When he made inquiries, he was surprised to discover that the supposed Saint Guinefort was actually a greyhound.

The legend of Saint Guinefort.

A modern illustration of Saint Guinefort by L. Bower/Wikimedia Commons 

The story as narrated by Stephen of Bourbon goes like this: In the diocese of Lyons, close to the village of the nuns called Villeneuve, on the estate of the lord of Villars-en-Dombe, there was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. One day, when the lord, the lady and the nurse were away with the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child's cradle. Guinefort, the lord’s greyhound saw the snake and dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child's cradle which he left all bloodied with the snake's blood. When the lord returned and saw Guinefort with a bloodied mouth and the cradled overturned, he assumed that the dog must have devoured it. In rage, the lord drew his sword and slew the animal. Just then he heard the child cry. Approaching the cradle he turned it over and discovered to his relief that his son was unharmed. But his joy was fleeting, for the very next moment he was swamped with intense grief and remorse for senselessly killing his trusted companion.

The lord buried Guinefort and piled stones over his grave to create a shrine. When villagers heard about the dog’s noble deed, they started visiting his grave and prayed to him whenever their own children were sick or in danger. Over the years, certain rituals developed around Guinefort’s resting place, one of which involved placing a sick child on a bed of straw near the venerated grave with candles burning on each side of the child’s head. The mother would then leave the child and would not return until the candles had burned out. Often, the straw bed would catch fire and the flames would devour the child. Other times, the defenseless child would be snatched away by wolves. If the child survived, the mother would take it to a nearby river and dunk it nine times. Only if the child came through this torturous ritual alive, he or she would be pronounced cured.

The legend of Saint Guinefort.

The legend of Saint Guinefort. A 15th century woodcut.

Stephen of Bourbon was horrified to learn about the practice because he thought such rituals were not invoking God but demons instead. He also felt that leaving children behind at the grave site with burning candles amounted to committing infanticide. Furthermore, Stephen took offense at the vernation of a dog, for he felt that the practice mocked true pilgrimage and the veneration of the canonical saints.

Stephen at once ordered the dog’s shrine to be destroyed and had an edict passed warning that anyone who was caught worshipping Guinefort would be fined. Despite the ban, the canine continued to be revered and worshipped by mothers of sick children for centuries to come.

St. Guinefort was never officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the church doesn’t approve the veneration of animals. The rationale being that animals are incapable of making moral choices, and that they could not actively choose good over evil.

The story of St. Guinefort itself is of questionable authenticity, especially since the legend has parallels around the world. In Welsh folklore, King Llywelyn the Great returns from a hunting trip to find his baby missing, the cradle overturned, and his dog Gelert with a blood-smeared mouth. Believing the dog had killed the child, Llywelyn draws his sword and kills Gelert on the spot, and then finds unharmed baby under the cradle along with the body of a dead wolf. There is similar story cautioning the consequences of hasty action from India dating back by thousands of years. In this version, the dog is replaced by a mongoose who kills a snake and protects the baby. Fables such as these can be found throughout India and southeast Asia, as well as China and Mongolia, and Europe.

The legend of Gelert.

The legend of Gelert. Painting by Charles Burton Barber, circa 1890.

If Guinefort the dog never existed, where did the name come from? According to the research by Dr. Rebecca Rist of University of Reading, there actually was an obscure human saint named Guinefort, who lived sometime between the 3rd and 4th centuries, and was executed for his preaching of Christianity and died a martyr saint at Pavia, in the diocese of Milan, where his cult was established. The veneration of this Saint Guinefort of Pavia then spread throughout France and spawned numerous cult sites. The hagiography of St. Guinefort is sparse and unreliable, except that he was known as a protector of sick children.

# Colin Dickey, A Faithful Hound, Lapham's Quarterly
# Dr. Rebecca Rist, The Papacy, Inquisition and Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound, University of Reading
# Stephen de Bourbon, De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort, Fordham University


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