The Greyhound Saint

Le saint lévrier: Guinefort, guérisseur d’enfants depuis le XIIIe siècle

by Jean-Claude Schmitt
Flammarion, 278 pp., 68 francs

The cult of St. Guinefort, who specialized in dispatching sickly children, astonished the inquisitor who happened upon it in the Dombes, a region north of Lyons, around the year 1250. When he asked about this saint he had never heard of before, he learned to his further dismay that Guinefort was a dog, a greyhound to be precise, who had been killed in the following way.

At a chateau near Neuville there lived a lord, his lady, and their infant son. One day when both parents and even the nurse were away from the chateau, a large snake came in and headed for the infant’s cradle. The lord’s dog followed the snake and attacked it just as it reached the cradle. A ferocious battle ensued in which the cradle was toppled over and the snake, after severely wounding the dog, was killed. The dog dragged the dead snake away and then settled down, all smeared with blood, by the cradle.

The nurse returned, assumed that the dog had killed the infant, and screamed; the lady did likewise; the lord, when he arrived, drew his sword and killed the dog. Only then did they find the infant safe and sound. Moreover, once they discovered the dead snake, they were able to reconstruct the entire scene. With great remorse, they buried the dog in front of the chateau and planted trees about the grave. By divine will, so the story concludes, the chateau crumbled to ruin and the land around reverted to wilderness.

The local peasants often returned to the site to honor the faithful martyr. They called him Guinefort, and when they prayed to him he responded with miracles. His cult was appropriately focused upon the care of children. Women especially took their sickly offspring to this shrine. An old hag revealed to them the secrets of a complicated ritual that included offerings of salt, tossing the naked child back and forth between trees of the sacred grove, calling on fauns to come out of the forest to reclaim the sick child they had previously swapped for the real, healthy child, and asking for the real one back. Children were left alone, exposed on the ground with candles burning dangerously close to their heads, or were dunked nine times in a nearby river. Guinefort did not undertake lengthy cures. Instead he gave speedy answers to anxious mothers: children either expired after this rite or else they were in fact healthy and survived.

With the publication of Le saint lévrier, we have an opportunity to compare two learned investigations of this rustic cult, one by the thirteenth-century inquisitor, Stephen of Bourbon, and now the other by a French historian, Jean-Claude Schmitt. Both were drawn to examine the cult by their professional training and mission. For Stephen it was a dangerous intrusion of pagan superstition into matters where Catholic orthodoxy claimed an exclusive franchise. For Schmitt, the same phenomenon provides a rare glimpse into the popular subculture that the Church had …

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Letters

Dogs and Saints April 1, 1982