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.

That is how “good Catholics” and their rationalist allies tell the story. The case of St. Guinefort is an exotic anomaly, a atavistic hiccup in the grand march of Catholic “orthodoxy”. And it seems like an open and shut case: people venerated a dog, venerating a dog is wrong, and that’s the end of it. It doesn’t really matter why they did it, what historicity accompanies this story, or if “St. Guinefort” is an actual name of a real saint. The only thing that matters is that the voice of reason won the day, and that the unorthodox cultus was pushed to the margins of society.

One of the first scholarly attempts to tackle the phenomenon of St. Guinefort comes in the book by Jean-Claude Schmitt, The holy greyhound: Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. Schmitt does an admirable job of getting passed the rhetoric of historians, theologians, and sociologists, and actually attempts to treat the phenomenon on its own terms. Instead of supporting the phenomenon of “clerical suppression of folk culture”, the French scholar tries to reveal the influences, the poetry, and the tensioned dialogue between popular forms of religiosity and “orthodox” gatekeepers who often judge what is acceptible.

What was really at play in the rise of the cult of St. Guinefort is an amalgam of social, sexual, historical, and folkloric tendencies that were converging in the process that would give birth to early modern society. Indeed, there was a St. Guinefort, but he was no greyhound. The name “Guinefort” made it into France along the trade routes coming from the south in Italy. The story of a heroic dog laying down its life for its master is almost archetypal in the Jungian sense. Such stories, as Schmidt documents, could be found as far away as India. Even the rite that had so horrified the Dominican friar was based firmly in medieval ideas of what could go wrong in the context of infancy. For if the mothers seemed to abandon their sick children at crossroads, it was because they thought that their healthy children had been replaced by insatiable “fairy-children” or changelings that would suck their mother’s milk dry. The mothers were simply trying to return these sick children to the fauns. Such a belief was not at all at the margins of medieval society, and had been incorporated into the apocryphal hagiographies of Sts. Stephen and Lawrence, among others. Even Martin Luther, almost three hundred years later, gives credence to such a belief in his famous Table Talk.

The cultus of St. Guinefort had also spread to other parts of the region, though without any explicit canine connotations. As Schmitt writes:

…at Le Velay… St. Guinefort was still venerated in the nineteenth century, although in quite a different fashion. At the edge of a copse overlooking the river there stood a cross of white wood, and every Sunday, the peasants would take their sick babies to this place. Taking off the cloth in which the child was wrapped, and throwing it over the arms of the cross, they would say in a loud voice:

Saint Guinafort, pour la vie, pour la mort. [St. Guinafort, for life, for death]

If the linen still hung on the cross, the child would be saved. But if it fell to the earth, the child was doomed to “a certain and imminent death”.

These rituals for the curing of young children seemed to be common in the cultus of the mysterious saint well into the 20th century. Indeed, in the original spot of the canine grave, there was a pit in which mothers continued to lay their children to help them learn how to walk. One local curé defended these rituals in the mid-nineteenth century as “enacted prayer” and not superstition. But the pressures of urbanization and secularization would definitively rid the Church of the devotion of St. Guinefort in all of its forms. As Schmitt concludes towards at the end of his book:

The real reason for this development is that in bourgeois society religion no longer played the vital role that it had played in the social relations of feudal society…. with the advent of the narrow-gauged railway, religion (whether clerical or “superstitious”) no longer played the central role that it had so long had in feudal Europe. This had been a slow development from the Reformation to the French Revolution, until, in the name of another truth, the religion of the church was itself cast back by the Reason of the philosophes, into the despised hell of “superstition”.

What then are we to make of Stephen of Bourbon’s crusade against the “dog saint”? Is it the victory of the Church over a marginal cult that makes a mockery of real religion; a triumph of the faith of “real saints”? Or was it an unforunate discovery by a zealous friar who, due to the milieu in which he was trained, could not but talk past the religion and practices of the rustici of southern France? In my own estimation, the cult of St. Guinefort, even in its canine context, was at best a harmless tale that the Church should have left alone. Indeed, in the ensuing history after the attack of the thirteenth century Dominican, that is what the Church seemed to have done in that region. No matter who we think St. Guinefort was or was not, the fact is that when people called someone in Heaven by that name, someone was “answering the phone”. The dog story may have been a practical joke played on the friar by the locals who wanted to have a little fun with the “sophisticated” outsider. But even if he was a dog, with a religion with talking asses and miraculous white oxen, one could say without any hint of jest: stranger things have happened.



2 responses

24 03 2020
muebles ros tel襯no

muebles ros tel襯no

On the margins of theology – IV | Reditus

16 11 2009
Sam Urfer

The “practical joke” theory has some merit, given that the cult was widespread elsewhere and didn’t have a canine connection. There is precedent for people telling tall-tales and myths that they actually think of as garbage to arrogant but clueless outsiders, in missionary contexts. No way to know, but it seems plausible.

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