Saint Guinefort

The legend of Saint Guinefort concerns a greyhound said to have lived in mid-13th century France. Dogs in feudal (as in Celtic) times were often highly-prized - especially

 hunting-dogs. They were also a source of warmth on the baronial bed during cold nights in unheated, cavernous and draughty stone castles

 

    Guinefort, a trusted family member, was, as often happened, left

              to guard an anonymous (but certainly seigneurial and almost certainly

              male) infant. When the father returned he saw blood covering the

              room and surrounding the infant's crib. Guinefort sat next to the

              crib, with blood around his mouth. Immediately the man took his

              bow and shot the dog in the heart. As the infant cried out, he realized

              his tragic error, and, on approaching the crib, he saw that his

              child was unharmed. Below the crib was the body of a dead snake

              (Satan ?) who had been creeping up on the infant. Guinefort had

              saved the child's life - and possibly his eternal life. In his grief,

              the father committed the dog's body to a well and (in the ancient

              Celtic tradition) planted a grove of trees around it to honour the

              brave greyhound. Local peasants and villagers, when they learned

              the story, began making pilgrimages to the grove to pray to the

              canine martyr.

 

This is the international folktale (motif B524.1.4.1.) known as “The Faithful Hound.”

                The primary textual traditions of this particular variant - The

                Dog-Saint - comes from De Adoratione Guinefortis Canis (Concerning

                the worship of the dog Guinefort). It somehow came to be attached

                to a local Burgundian saint associated with the healing of children,

                who thereby was transmogrified into a greyhound.

 

“This recently happened in the diocese

                of Lyons where, when I preached against the reading of oracles,

                and was hearing confession, numerous women confessed that they

                had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. As I thought that

                this was some holy person, I continued with my enquiry and finally

                learned that this was actually a greyhound, which had been killed

                in the following manner...thee peasants, hearing of the dog's

                conduct and of how it had been killed, although innocent, and

                for a deed for which it might have expected praise, visited the

                place, honoured the dog as a martyr, prayed to it when they were

                sick or in need of something...

 

              Eacute;tienne de Bourbon, an inquisitor reporting from Dombes, north of Lyon

                (a small area now straddling the railway-line in the partement

                of the Ain between Lyon and Bourg-en-Bresse), recorded the above

                account in his 13th century narrative supporting Guinefort's designation

                as a heretic. He had the dog disinterred, and the sacred

                wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.

                Apparently a dog cannot be an official saint, though he can be

                an official heretic. Despite the best efforts of the Inquisition

                to eradicate the cult of Saint Guinefort, people continued to

                visit the grove up to 1940, praying for the protection of their

                children. Ruins of a chapel dedicated to St Guinefort survive

                at Trévron in Brittany (Côtes d'Armor). In 1987,

                a movie was even made about the dog and his cult “The Sorceress”

                France 1988).

 

 The 14th century Saint Rochfrom Montpellier is also associated with a dog - who, during the Black Death, stole bread from his master for the saint when he was a plague-victim starving in the forest.  The saint's history continues, but the dog drops out of the story

 

There is an obvious connection between

              St Guinefort and St Christopher who is sometimes called  Cynephoros

              in Greek (dog-faced) - though more often Cynocephalos (dog-headed).

              There are indeed some ikons of him shown with a dog's face. These

              are highly illicit - although illicitness rarely prevents iconography.

              So the story of St Guinefort is probably a popular misunderstanding

              of the cult of Christopher - Christophorus Cynocephalus or

              Cynephoros being easily corrupted to Guinefort. At the very

              least, it was strongly influenced by the dog-headedness of Christopher.

 

              The cynocephalic St Christopher

                story also seems to have been known in England, though Old English

                traditions of the saint are rather unusual. According to the Old

                English “Passion of St Christopher”, he was healf hundisces mancynnes 'of the race of mankind who are half hound'. The Old English Martyrology

                elaborates upon this he was thære theode wær men

                habbath hunda heafod  of thære eorthan on theare æton

                men hi selfe  'from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other'; furthermore, he

                haefde hundes haefod, & his loccas waeron ofer gemet side,

                & his eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra, & his

                teth wæron swa scearpe swa eofores texas -

                'he had the head of a hound, and his locks were extremely

                long, and his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, and his

                teeth were as sharp as a boar's tusks'. Dogs were highly

                prized in Celtic societies - at least as much as racehorses in

                ours - and the Celtic legends and mythologies celebrate various

                dogs called Bran. The name of the Irish hero Cú Chuailláin

                means Hound of Ulster.  A C&uacutewas much more

                valuable than a Madabh (farm dog).

 

The Welsh dog-hero/saint Gelert,

                associated with Prince Llywelyn the Great (1173-1240), is, however,

                a romantic fiction of the late 18th century derived from a 5th

                century Indian Buddhist work, the Pancha Tantra. The story

                gained wide currency in Europe in the Middle East. The heraldic

                Rous Roll of the 15th century, for example, depicted the

                arms of Wales as a helmet on which stand a dog and a cradle. But

                it was finally applied specifically by a hotelier to the village

                of Beddgelert, named after an obscure, early-mediæval, local

                saint. To reinforce the story further, he erected a megalith,

                Gelert's Bed. The 'new' story became the subject of a poem

                by W.R. Spencer which Joseph Haydn set to music. Such is the stuff

                of nationalist legend - and this is one of the more benign examples.

 

In

                the Physiologus, the early-mediæval source of the

                late-mediæval Bestiaries, dogs are praised for having

                more understanding than any other beast- and for knowing

                their name and loving their master. Dogs are like preachers

                who by warnings and by righteous living turn aside the ambushes

                of the Devil...As the dog's tongue heals a wound by licking, so

                the wounds of sin are cleansed by the instruction of the priest

                when they are laid bare in confession.