• Email
  • Print

Dogs and Saints

In response to:

The Greyhound Saint from the April 30, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

In connection with my review of the book of Jean-Claude Schmitt on the dog-saint Guinefort [NYR, April 30], Professor Meyer Schapiro has raised a question about Schmitt’s debt, if any, to the work of P. Saintyves. The question is both fair and welcome: fair because Saintyves devoted some thirty pages to Guinefort in a miscellany of religious folklore, En Marge de la Légende Dorée: Songes, miracles et survivances, published in 1930, and welcome because it gives occasion for a brief statement on folklore and history.

Saintyves was the pseudonym of Emile Nourry (1870-1935), author of two dozen books and over a hundred articles on folklore. Nourry had studied under Durkheim but did not himself hold an academic post of great importance. He ran his own press and bookstore in Paris and served as president of the French Folklore Society. His chapter on Guinefort includes a translation of Stephen of Bourbon’s exemplum, a survey of several variants on the story of the faithful dogmartyr, a review of the reports by visitors to the scene in the 1870s, and a discussion of the persistence and expansion of the cult. All this material, like that in the eleven other chapters, is presented, according to the author in his preface, to demonstrate that the gullibility of lay people played a preponderant role in the formation of hagiographic themes. In addition, Nourry promised the reader “a hundred curious facts of which you alone will be able to discern the importance and interest.”

Such an approach calls to mind many other folklorists, among them the English cleric Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who wrote of the legend of the Welsh dog-martyr Gellert in Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1866). Baring-Gould’s transition from William Tell to Gellert gave away his purpose: “Having demolished the story of the famous shot of William Tell, I proceed to the destruction of another article of popular belief.” This high-church Anglican shared with our Third Republic anticlerical a deep distaste for the medieval clergy and an amateurish fascination with medieval “curiosities.”

Schmitt did indeed cite Nourry’s chapter on Guinefort (and four other of his works as well). But while building on the work of Nourry, Baring-Gould, and other folklorists, he had the use of far better research tools, far more information, and far different questions. For example, the motif-indices that Stith Thompson and his colleagues and disciples have developed in the past half century had just started to appear when Nourry was in his final years. The great advances of medieval social and religious history of recent decades made it possible for Schmitt to give historical specificity to virtually every phrase of Stephen’s exemplum, instead of considering it explained (or demolished) because earlier versions had been found. He did the same with the cult. Thus Schmitt’s inquiry was historical: What did poor, illiterate people believe in the thirteenth century? How did the literate caste try to maintain control over them? What is the relationship between “high” and “low” culture? During the seven centuries that the cult of St. Guinefort flourished, what peculiar historical conditions prevailed that could explain the cult’s growth, persistence, and decline?

The separation of folklore from the newly self-conscious disciplines of sociology and anthropology at the start of this century has been of concern to a small but growing number of scholars, one recent example being the English sociologist Kenneth Thompson, writing in The Sociological Review (May 1980). A similar concern could be voiced about the separation of folklore from history. The career of Emile Nourry is in some ways symptomatic of the intellectual isolation of folklore. At last, though, his work is being rescued from marginality, as the goal of reintegrating the social or human sciences is pursued by Le Goff, Schmitt, and company.

Lester K. Little

Smith College

Northampton, Massachusetts

  • Email
  • Print