Throughout history, people have venerated some rather interesting local and unofficial saints, so it comes as no surprise that dogs have been associated with sainthood. We have Saint Assisi, who could converse with wolves. Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs and dog lovers, had a loyal dog who was said to have cured him of the plague. Saint Christopher Cynocephalus was said to actually have the head of a dog, and is depicted this way in icons from Russia and Greece. This is probably due to a bad transcription of the word Cananeus (meaning “from Canaan”) to canineus (“doglike”).
Thirteenth-century Saint Guinefort, however, was literally a dog (specifically, a Greyhound) and a patron saint of children. His feast day is celebrated on Aug. 22.
The story behind this saint is a familiar one, which has also been attributed to various faithful hounds throughout history — like the 13th-century hound named Gelert, who defended a baby from a wolf (who is reputedly buried in the village of Beddgeler in Wales). Similar motifs occur in Aesop’s Fables, the Victorian story of Jock of the Bushveld, and Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp.
As for the Greyhound Guinefort, the story goes that a nobleman left him in the nursery with his infant son. When the man returned, the cradle was overturned and the child was missing. The dog ran over with blood on his mouth. The nobleman rashly leapt to the conclusion that the dog had attacked his son. He drew his sword and killed Guinefort. Only after the dog was slain did the man find his child alive and well under the overturned cot, alongside the body of a deadly poisonous snake, which Guinefort had killed to protect the child. The nobleman regretted his act and took the dog and buried him in a well, and covered it over with stones.
Later, a shrine to Guinefort was established where the dog was reputedly buried, and children were brought there to be made immune to illness or to be healed through various rituals, such as passing naked babies between the trunks of trees.
Historians say that Guinefort the dog saint assumed the name of any earlier human saint of the same name, but about whom very little is known, except that he was executed by being shot with many arrows. It is unclear how he became transformed into a Greyhound, but such confusions and transformations are not uncommon in the history of saints. The story of the dog Gelert (see above) is similarly conflated with a seventh-century hermit Welsh saint (human) of the same name. Some historians believe that Guinefort the dog saint might have been a cover story for the use of a pagan healing well.
In any case, the Catholic Church was not amused by Guinefort. In 1262, Inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon demanded that the remains of the dog be burned and the shrine and surrounding trees be completely destroyed. The church decreed that anyone found even going to the site of the former shrine would have all their possessions seized and sold. Despite this threat, the shrine continued to receive surreptitious visitors –- some historians say the shrine saw use up until the 19th century, even as late as the 1930s.
The tale of the faithful hound whose brave behavior is so tragically misunderstood resonates among people. For French peasants still subject to the whim of the nobility, it may have represented something profound about what it is like to live in the service of people who do not always exercise the best judgment. A world where the rights and status of a nobleman’s Greyhound was often much higher than that of a human peasant.
And even the Inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon wrote that the nobleman’s fate was the result of “divine will” – after the man unjustly killed his Greyhound, he “found his manor reduced to a desert.” So while considering a dog saint heresy, Etienne de Bourbon certainly seemed to consider the unjust killing of a good dog to be behavior a just God might punish.
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