Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Saint Guinefort, the Goodest of Boys.

No matter where you come from, you'll be familiar with the idea of Saints. Men and Women, of all ages, who have done much good in their lives and have usually died horribly for their faith. Even today, the Pope still canonizes new Saints, though the process can take years and there are strict guidelines to follow. As of writing this, the most recent of these new Saints would be Nunzio Sulprizio; in life a poor and gentle blacksmith, in death immortalised as patron saint of blacksmiths, those with disabilities and workers. Personally, I find the idea of Saints fascinating. There's so many of them that I could write about the subject for hours. Need a patron Saint to protect you from explosions and lightning strikes? Then you want Saint Barbara. Keep burning yourself on the stove while cooking? Then you're better off with Saint Lorenzo, Patron Saint of Cooks, who was martyred by being roasted alive over a large fire by angry Romans. Being quite the badass, it's said that while undergoing this ordeal that he turned to his captors and said "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." A chef to the last and an utter legend. But you're not here to read about them, you're here to read about something a little different. You're here to read about Saint Guinefort.
Hailing from 13th Century France, it was here that Saint Guinefort was venerated as a saint, although not one officially recognised by the Catholic Church, but a Folk Saint. He was also a greyhound. Yes, you read that correctly. No, I am not insulting a religious figure, he was literally a greyhound and a saint. His story is near identical to that of Gelert, a heroic hound from Welsh folklore.* It's one of those tales that, although most likely untrue, makes you wonder what humans have done to deserve dogs; they are known as mans best friend, yet time and time again they are let down. Guinefort, before his sainthood, is said to have been the loyal pet of a nobleman or knight and lived in South-Eastern France, in an area known as the Dombes. One day this man left his castle, leaving his baby son under the watchful eye of his loyal hound, sure that nothing could go wrong. Yet when he returned to his home he found the nursery in chaos, the crib overturned and Guinefort sitting next to it, his muzzle covered in blood. Overcome by grief and rage, convinced the dog had slain his child, the nobleman drew his sword and killed Guinefort on the spot. He only realised his mistake when seconds later he heard a babies cry. His child was alive and well. Finally taking the time to investigate the scene, the frantic father found the baby on the floor behind the crib without a scratch on it. Below the crib he found the mangled remains of a poisonous snake. Too late the nobleman realised his mistake, that the blood around Guinefort's mouth was that of the snake, which surely would have killed the child had the loyal hound not been present to stop it. The heartbroken nobleman buried Guinefort in the traditional fashion for that time, in a well near his home, which was then filled in and covered with stones. After this, trees were planted around in the dogs honor, creating a grove.** 
Saint Christopher
It wasn't long before this tale spread. People from all over the area began to visit Guinefort's grave. It went from burial mound to shrine. People believed the dog was still able to protect children, even in death, and that sick children and infants could be healed if bought to Saint Guinefort's shrine. Rituals there included laying babies on the shine, lighting candles, leaving offerings and passing the children bought there between two of the trees. Though there is no written evidence for it, it's said that miracles occured and it's popularity grew until Saint Guinefort had what has been referred to as a cult. The whole situation sounds surreal and wonderful, but there is a possible explanation for it. Saint Guinefort the greyhound may have been confused with Saint Guinefort the human, an earlier saint who was martyred when he was shot full of arrows. It's also possible that Saint Christopher might have had an influence too, as he is often shown as having the head of a dog. Whatever the reason, Guinefort was respected in death as he should have been in life.
By this point you're probably wondering why you can't find any sign of the shrine online, why isn't it on any maps? The explanation is a simple one; the Inquisition. Not the Spanish Inquisition***, but the one founded in 12th century France by the Catholic Church. Their job was to investigate and combat anything they considered heresy. Sometime around 1261, an Inquisitor by the name of Etienne de Bourbon was visiting the area. He was initially delighted to find out that the locals were worshiping what he understood to be a much respected healer. His enthusiasm soon dwindled upon discovering that the healer was a dog. Despite being upset by the shrine, Etienne de Bourbon shows pity for Guinefort in his writings, referring to the dog as both noble and innocent. However he was horrified by what he saw as acts of Pagan worship and in his writings talks of demon summonings and infanticide. 
"They were seduced and often cheated by the Devil so that he might in this way lead men into error. Women especially, with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league to another nearby castle where and old woman could teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the right spot."
He visited the shrine, where he had poor Guinefort's remains dug up and burnt along with the grove. The cult was broken up, it's worshipers were dispersed and threatened with punishment if they continued. 
I could end the blog now, but I'm pleased to say that it didn't end there. Etienne de Bourbon achieved nothing at the Shrine of St Guinefort, other than making a mess and upsetting quite a lot of people. I believe it's highly likely that veneration of this unofficial saint never ceased, it's just that those involved are keeping quiet about it. There's even some evidence to support this theory. In the 1800's a folklorist claims to have found the burial place while out walking, the site was intact. Much later a historian found evidence that worship of Guinefort had persisted right into the 1930's. To put that into perspective, that's not long after World War One and roughly around 89 years ago. Not even threatening his loyal worshipers could make them stop, it just made them more careful about how they went about it. The unofficial Patron Saint of Children and official Good Boy persists to this day and will never be forgotten.

*If you're ever in North-West Wales, you can visit Gelert's grave. Information can be found here.
**I'm not an expert on 13th century burials in France, but something about this has a distinctly Pagan air about it, reminding me very much of the pagan burial mounds we have here in England. Judging by his reaction, Etienne de Bourbon felt the same way, only he saw it as something sinister.

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