Saint Guinefort, the holy dog ​​of medieval France whose cult lasted until the 20th century

Martyrologium romanum ex Decree Sacrosancti Æcumenici Concilii Vaticani II Instauratum auctoritate Ioannis Pauli PP. II promulgation is the long title of a catalog of martyrs, blessed and saints of the Catholic Church published for the first time in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments thanks to decree Victoriam Paschalem Christi of John Paul II.

The second and last edition carried out to date was in 2005 and it lists around seven thousand names. Among them there is not one that, without a doubt, is the most unusual saint in history: Saint Guinefort, whose devotion began in the Middle Ages.

The reason for this omission in the martyrology is that, although Saint Guinefort is credited with some miracles and his tomb became a place of pilgrimage for centuries, at least in France from the Middle Ages until well into the 20th century, in reality He never had the approval of the Church for a decisive reason: he was a dog. To be exact, a greyhound or greyhound that belonged to the Lord of Thoire and Villars, corresponding to the current town of Villars-les-Dombes, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

Location of Villars-les-Dombes in France/Image: Wikimedia Commons

The story was collected and narrated in the year 1250 by Étienne de Bourbon (often Spanishized as Esteban de Borbón), a Dominican inquisitor who enjoyed a certain prestige in his time for being the author of a inquisitor’s handbook and above all of Tractatus de diverse materiis predicabilibus, a compilation of three thousand moralizing fables that were used at that time as a teaching method of religious doctrine; many important authors resorted to example (or to the examplein the plural) for his literary works, in the case of Petrarca, Bocaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer or our Don Juan Manuel.

But let’s get back to the facts. According to the friar, Guinefort was a dog who lived in the aforementioned nobleman’s castle, not far from Lyon. One day the gentleman went hunting and when he returned he found a terrifying scene in the room of his son, a baby of a few months: the cradle was overturned and the sheets scattered on the floor with blood stains. His wife and a maid came running but the little boy was not seen and, instead, when Guinefort approached his mistress to greet him, he saw that he too had a bloody nose.

M. de Villars deduced, horrified, that the dog had killed and devoured his offspring. In a fit of rage and despair, he drew his sword and slashed at the animal, decapitating it on the spot and throwing its body into a well… and then there was a cry. The baby was under the overturned crib, hidden among the messy blankets and also safe and sound, without presenting any injuries. The same could not be said of a viper standing next to him, dead, obviously torn by the jaws of the dog. The blood on these was from the snake.

Guinefort not only was not guilty but, loyal to his own, he had protected the child from the snake. Dismayed by the mistake, the gentleman and his wife decided to bury the animal in the most dignified way possible, filling the well, covering it with stones and planting several trees around it, so that it constituted a true sanctuary. Because, aware of the incident, the locals began to go to the grave to honor him, since they considered him a protector of childhood. Thus was born an unusual popular veneration.

the thing was in crescendo and people took their children to the tomb so that Guinefort’s spirit would heal them or take care of any evil, just as it was done with the normal saints of the Church. She was not amused by that situation and even less by the fact that the dog was referred to as a saint, after some miracles were attributed to it, so she always tried to put an end to that superstition, sometimes expressly prohibiting what was already reaching the dimension local cult.

In fact, the aforementioned Étienne de Bourbon heard about this custom in various confessions when he preached in Lyon and decided to test it personally. The testimony of him, told in the work of superstitionit was not very positive because the devotion of the people was often mixed with rites that practically bordered on paganism: «They were seduced and often deceived by the Devil, who hoped in this way to lead men into error».

The inquisitor especially singled out the women who took their sick or poor children to an old woman established there, who performed demonic invocations and made offerings with salt, then hung the children’s clothes on brambles (there were ethnologists who witnessed seeing branches full of knotted garments as late as 1879), before placing naked babies in hollows in tree trunks, then conjuring beings of nature to wash away ills and bring health. Then the mothers had to light some candles located on each side of their little ones and leave them like that all night, immersing them nine times in the river the next day until they were immunized. Apparently, the flames once accidentally started fires and with them the death of babies; there were also occasions when the wolves devoured them during the night.

Some researchers suggest that it was perhaps a deliberate infanticide – killing newborn children who could not support themselves was a terrible reality in Europe for centuries -, which was endowed with a ritual wrapper so that their parents could psychologically exculpate themselves. Despite everything, Étienne de Bourbon did not consider it appropriate to prosecute those people, whom he considered victims of their own ignorance, striving to convince the families not to leave their children exposed and defenseless in that way in exchange for being permissive with the devotion to Guinefort and with sympathetic magic.

The truth is that this is not the only case of canine prominence in religious legends. This one in particular has been linked to that of the dog of San Roque, the saint who, dedicated to caring for plague patients, was infected and was expelled into a forest, where he would have starved to death if his dog had not brought him food; Tradition attributes the name of Guinefort to the animal, although the history of San Roque was a century later, in the XIV century, which indicates that the name would be based on the previous one.

Also, the French legend is quite similar to another in North West Wales about a dog named Gelert, the protagonist of a folk tale entitled faithful hound (The faithful hound), in which Llywelyn the big onePrince of Gwynedd, kills his dog Gelert (a gift from the English king) after a mix-up like the Guinefort case, only substituting a wolf for the snake and embellishing the tale with typical British spooky elements, such as the surroundings from the grave (which, by the way, would give rise to the formation of the town of Beddgelert) could be heard the mournful howl of the dying animal.

Painting by Jeanne-Elisabeth Chaudet inspired by the legend | public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

The moral is easily deducible (exaltation of temperance against the cardinal sin of anger) and no one will escape the metaphorical nature of some elements: over time, only the improvised tomb of Guinefort remained of the castle of the angry knight; the greyhound was considered a type of noble dog in every way, the snake was a symbol of the devil for Christianity from its very origin and the wolf was part of the evil bestiary popular in times when it was much more abundant. In fact, both Guinefort’s and Gelert’s are arguments from folk legends spread throughout almost the entire world with slight variations; for example, in India it is a mongoose that frees the baby from a cobra, while in Malaysia the main animals are a bear and a tiger respectively.

In any case, the tradition of devotion to Saint Guinefort continued despite the measures taken to put an end to it (exhumation and burning of his remains along with the destruction of the place and the threat of a fine for whoever returned to meet there), until in the decade of the thirties of the last century ended up diluting by itself. Later it was discovered that Guinefort would have been a human saint who lived sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries of whom hardly anything is remembered except for certain concomitances in his death with that of Saint Sebastian (that is, shot by fire) and who was considered a protector of childhood before the disease, celebrating his party on August 22.

This date coincides with the summer period in which the star Sirius, represented by a dog, rises at the same time as dawn; There are other saints that are associated with that star and that are usually artistically represented with the head of a dog, in the case of San Cristóbal.


Of superstition. On St Guinefort (Étienne de Bourbon; Fordham University)/a faithful hound (Colin Dickley in Lapham’s Quarterly)/Christianity. A global history (David Chidester)/Holy dogs and asses. Animals in the christian tradition (Laura Hobgood-Oster)/Wikipedia

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