On the margins of theology – IV

16 11 2009


The curious case of St. Guinefort

For those who fancy themselves cultured and somewhat versed in the more bizarre points of history, the case of St. Guinefort is perhaps one of the more exotic and colorful stories at which to gawk. For those few who do not yet know the story, it begins in the castle of a nobleman whose name is now lost to the erosion of time and lore. Upon returning from a trip, he hastily killed his loyal greyhound after thinking that it had mauled his newborn child to death in his crib. After finding a dead snake and the child safe and sound, the nobleman realized what had really happened: the dog had once again presented itself as “man’s best friend”, having ferociously killed the snake that was stalking the bed of the newborn. The nobleman buried the dog and planted a tree at its burial site to commemorate its heroic actions. The castle itself was eventually leveled, the family departed, and a grove of trees came up in its place. But the locals did not forget the “martyrdom” of that greyhound, and little by little, the tree at which it was buried became the site of pilgrimage, particularly for mothers with sick young children.

This was the state in which the devoted Dominican, Stephen of Bourbon, found this area of the world in the 1200’s. Hot on the trail of heresy and witchcraft, the educated city dweller entered the countryside looking for anything that did not cohere with the “orthodoxy” that was triumphantly established in the great cathedrals and universities of the age. When through much prodding the friar found out that the local saint was a dog commemorated at a sacred grove, he began a campaign to eradicate the blasphemy from the region. He preached against the “rites” performed by the mothers there who would bring their sick children as a “sacrifice” to the fauns, passing them through the trunks of trees and leaving them exposed to the elements. Finally, he preached at the place itself, and had the bones of the dog dug up and burnt, and leveled the place to the ground. Unforunately here as well, Holy Mother Church was not able to eradicate completely the superstitions of the local “cafeteria” Catholics, and the cultus to St. Guinefort lasted well into the early 20th century.
Read the rest of this entry »