SAINT GUINEFORT

THE HOLY GREYHOUND

 

The story of the greyhound who became a saint is one that has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity… and why not? The idea of a dog being sainted has great appeal to those who think a loyal pet is worthy of such an honor, as well as a source of amusement to those who find the idea absurd.

 

Whether animals have souls or not has been debated by theologians, clergy, and lay people for decades. Pope Francis stated in the encyclical Laudato Si’ that each creature will be "resplendently transfigured" and take their rightful place in the eternal afterlife. An earlier Pope, Pius IX, took a negative view declaring animals had no souls, and even went so far as to state they had no consciousness. Fortunately for our four-legged friends scientific studies have shown that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

 

Greyhounds enjoyed special status in parts of medieval Europe, with the privilege of ownership being reserved exclusively for nobility and severe penalties for commoners owning the prized breed. Greyhounds were used in heraldry to symbolize majesty, courage, and loyalty, and killing a greyhound was punishable by death during the reign of King Hywel Dda in 10th century Wales.

 

Regardless of what one thinks about animals in the afterlife or a greyhound being sainted, the story of Guinefort illustrates the heroic selflessness of dogs and serves as a cautionary tale warning against impetuous actions.

 

Image of a sainted Guinefort, a greyhound with a halo, standing triumphant over a dead viper. The story of Guinefort the greyhound takes place in a rural region of France near Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, presumably around the 12th or 13th century. A nobleman left his castle one day, entrusting the care of his infant son to his loyal dog, Guinefort. Upon returning home the man found the cradle upturned, the infant missing, and the greyhound’s mouth covered in blood. Assuming the dog killed the child the nobleman drew his sword and slayed Guinefort in a fit of rage. Moments later the man discovered the baby safe behind the crib and a dead viper whose body was bloody from dog bites. Guinefort had risked his life by attacking the poisonous snake, protecting the child from a venomous fate. The nobleman buried Guinefort in a well near the castle, piled stones to mark the site and planted trees in the dog’s honor. Legend holds that God avenged the greyhound’s death by destroying the castle.

 

The martyred greyhound’s story spread throughout the region and the locals sainted Guinefort. The process of naming a saint was not as structured during the early medieval period as it is today, and it was not uncommon for regions to declare their own saints. The Holy See was not designated as the sole authority over beatification and canonization until the 17th century.

 

When Roman Catholic authorities became aware that the locals had sainted a dog, the veneration of St. Guinefort was prohibited by the Church with a penalty of fines against those seeking his help. Apparently the people's love of their holy canine outweighed Church's threats because the legend of St. Guinefort and associated healing rites reportedly continued for centuries in the region.

 

Stories of a martyred pet who performed a heroic deed have appeared in numerous cultures around the world, and some scholars have speculated they have a common origin in an ancient Indian folktale The Brahmin and the Mongoose. There are also theories that the name Guinefort comes from an earlier saint about whom little is known. Folktales, traditions and religious elements often borrow from other sources, and preexisting elements may have inspired Guinefort the greyhound's story. Regardless of the origin, the end result in this case – a sainted canine – is quite unique.

 

The earliest and primary record we have regarding St. Guinefort comes from the 13th century Dominican friar and inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon. Bourbon was the Roman Catholic Church authority who discovered the sainted greyhound, and later wrote a treatise with a section discussing Guinefort and the local people.

 

In the section of the treatise denouncing the veneration of a holy greyhound, Stephen of Bourbon describes how he had the dog’s bones disinterred and destroyed, and the trees which served as St. Guinefort’s shrine burned down. It is interesting to note that, according to Bourbon, there were the bones of a dog found at this shrine, lending some credence to the possibility of Guinefort the greyhound's story being based on actual events. Bourbon also describes the slaying of Guinefort as “unjustly killing of a dog so useful” and the dog's “noble deed and his innocent death”… a surprising amount of sympathy from the inquisitor. It seems that even Stephen of Bourbon was not immune to charms of Guinefort!

 

Also mentioned by Stephen of Bourbon is a ritual practiced by the local mothers based in the belief of changelings; a changeling being an infant who was secretly swapped by spirits, leaving the parents with a sick or malevolent fairy child. While the idea of changelings may sound absurd today, the belief in them was very real in parts of medieval Europe. Scholars propose that some of these suspected changelings were actually children with autism, epilepsy, or other conditions not understood at the time. Child mortality was extremely high in medieval Europe with approximately 30% of children not living past the age of 5. It is conceivable how people from the Middle Ages would have developed superstitious beliefs to explain unknown conditions and the high infant mortality rate.

 

The changeling ritual described by Stephen of Bourbon consisted passing a child between tree trunks, followed by the mother leaving the infant unattended at the base of a tree on a bed of straw under burning candles. The mother made offerings to spirits and requests to fauns to replace the changeling with her original child. The infant was then submerged in a nearby river to complete the rite. According to Stephen of Bourbon's treatise there were infants who perished during the ritual. The locals stopped performing the changeling ritual, and a harmless rite for sick children developed where tree branches in St. Guinefort's wood were knotted together to symbolically bind the child’s ailments. This tree branch binding rite reportedly continued in the area for centuries.

 

No known painting or statue of St. Guinefort exists from the Middle Ages. Icon paintings sometimes identified as St. Guinefort are actually portraying St. Christopher. Due to a Byzantine mistranslation of the word "Canaanite" centuries ago, St. Christopher is sometimes erroneously portrayed as having the head of a dog. This is not related to the story of St. Guinefort.

 

Image of St. Roch with a greyhound standing by his side.As any dog owner can attest, canines often end up in places they don't belong. Guinefort has been known to show up in the story of St. Roch, the official patron saint of dogs. Legend tells that St. Roch was starving to death in a forest until a dog brought him food and restored Roch back to health. The dog is sometimes identified as Guinefort, but it is estimated that St. Roch was born decades after Guinefort, so it is unlikely that St. Roch's heroic dog is our gallant greyhound. Could the dog have been a heavenly manifestation of Guinefort sent to help St. Roch?

 

Tradition holds that St. Guinefort's Feast Day is on August 22nd, and St. Roch's is on August 16th, both occurring during the dog days of summer. The term "dog days of summer" comes from the star Sirius and its position in the sky. Sirius's constellation, Canis Major, is shaped like a dog and has often been depicted in astrological illustrations as a greyhound. Sirius’s constellation may have settled the debate around animals having souls by showing us that dogs do indeed have a place in the heavens.

 

Thus concludes the tale of Guinefort, the greyhound who became a saint. While the loyalty that dogs have towards their owners is renowned, the loyalty that the people of this region showed towards their beloved St. Guinefort was impressive... keeping his legend and healing rites alive for centuries despite the condemnation and threats from Church authorities.

 

And in an ironic twist of fate, Stephen of Bourbon, the inquisitor who tried wiping out the greyhound saint ended up enshrining St. Guinefort's legend forever. Without Bourbon's treatise condemning the holy greyhound, St. Guinefort would have most likely disappeared into history as the world modernized. It seems that Guinefort had the last bark!

 

* * *

 

Card for sale of St. Guinefort, with gold foil details.

St. Guinefort and St. Roch 4x6 inch art prints with gold foil details are available for purchase at:

 www.etsy.com/shop/SaintGuinefortStore

 

 

 

For further study...

 

A thorough resource on St. Guinefort is The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century by Jean-Claude Schmidtt (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture). A more accessible exploration of the story is the French movie Sorceress (1987) with English subtitles. The film was praised for its attention to detail surrounding medieval life. While the movie takes liberties with the Stephen of Bourbon story, it provides an engaging glimpse into the period and gives an insightful theory into the mindset of these people. It is a enjoyable film, and I spoke with the movie's producer to confirm that the dog was not harmed during the making. There is an Association of St. Guinefort in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne: www.association-saint-guignefort.fr

 

 

 

 

A smiling greyhound, laying on his dog bed.

If you are interested in owning a greyhound, please contact a greyhound adoption organization to learn more about owning these incredible dogs as pets. You can find the nearest organization by doing a web search for "adopt a greyhound."

 

 

Image of St. Guinefort, a greyhound with a halo, standing triumphant over a dead viper.

 

 

Image of St. Guinefort, a greyhound with a halo, standing triumphant over a dead viper.

SAINT GUINEFORT

THE HOLY GREYHOUND

 

The story of the greyhound who became a saint is one that has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity… and why not? The idea of a dog being sainted has great appeal to those who think a loyal pet is worthy of such an honor, as well as a source of amusement to those who find the idea absurd.

 

Whether animals have souls or not has been debated by theologians, clergy, and lay people for decades. Pope Francis stated in the encyclical Laudato Si’ that each creature will be "resplendently transfigured" and take their rightful place in the eternal afterlife. An earlier Pope, Pius IX, took a negative view declaring animals had no souls, and even went so far as to state they had no consciousness. Fortunately for our four-legged friends scientific studies have shown that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

 

Greyhounds enjoyed special status in parts of medieval Europe, with the privilege of ownership being reserved exclusively for nobility and severe penalties for commoners owning the prized breed. Greyhounds were used in heraldry to symbolize majesty, courage, and loyalty, and killing a greyhound was punishable by death during the reign of King Hywel Dda in 10th century Wales.

 

Regardless of what one thinks about animals in the afterlife or a greyhound being sainted, the story of Guinefort illustrates the heroic selflessness of dogs and serves as a cautionary tale warning against impetuous actions.

 

The story of Guinefort the greyhound takes place in a rural region of France near Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, presumably around the 12th or 13th century. A nobleman left his castle one day, entrusting the care of his infant son to his loyal dog, Guinefort. Upon returning home the man found the cradle upturned, the infant missing, and the greyhound’s mouth covered in blood. Assuming the dog killed the child the nobleman drew his sword and slayed Guinefort in a fit of rage. Moments later the man discovered the baby safe behind the crib and a dead viper whose body was bloody from dog bites. Guinefort had risked his life by attacking the poisonous snake, protecting the child from a venomous fate. The nobleman buried Guinefort in a well near the castle, piled stones to mark the site and planted trees in the dog’s honor. Legend holds that God avenged the greyhound’s death by destroying the castle.

 

The martyred greyhound’s story spread throughout the region and the locals sainted Guinefort. The process of naming a saint was not as structured during the early medieval period as it is today, and it was not uncommon for regions to declare their own saints. The Holy See was not designated as the sole authority over beatification and canonization until the 17th century.

 

When Roman Catholic authorities became aware that the locals had sainted a dog, the veneration of St. Guinefort was prohibited by the Church with a penalty of fines against those seeking his help. Apparently the people's love of their holy canine outweighed Church's threats because the legend of St. Guinefort and associated healing rites reportedly continued for centuries in the region.

 

Stories of a martyred pet who performed a heroic deed have appeared in numerous cultures around the world, and some scholars have speculated they have a common origin in an ancient Indian folktale The Brahmin and the Mongoose. There are also theories that the name Guinefort comes from an earlier saint about whom little is known. Folktales, traditions and religious elements often borrow from other sources, and preexisting elements may have inspired Guinefort the greyhound's story. Regardless of the origin, the end result in this case – a sainted canine – is quite unique.

 

The earliest and primary record we have regarding St. Guinefort comes from the 13th century Dominican friar and inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon. Bourbon was the Roman Catholic Church authority who discovered the sainted greyhound, and later wrote a treatise with a section discussing Guinefort and the local people.

 

In the section of the treatise denouncing the veneration of a holy greyhound, Stephen of Bourbon describes how he had the dog’s bones disinterred and destroyed, and the trees which served as St. Guinefort’s shrine burned down. It is interesting to note that, according to Bourbon, there were the bones of a dog found at this shrine, lending some credence to the possibility of Guinefort the greyhound's story being based on actual events. Bourbon also describes the slaying of Guinefort as “unjustly killing of a dog so useful” and the dog's “noble deed and his innocent death”… a surprising amount of sympathy from the inquisitor. It seems that even Stephen of Bourbon was not immune to charms of Guinefort!

 

Also mentioned by Stephen of Bourbon is a ritual practiced by the local mothers based in the belief of changelings; a changeling being an infant who was secretly swapped by spirits, leaving the parents with a sick or malevolent fairy child. While the idea of changelings may sound absurd today, the belief in them was very real in parts of medieval Europe. Scholars propose that some of these suspected changelings were actually children with autism, epilepsy, or other conditions not understood at the time. Child mortality was extremely high in medieval Europe with approximately 30% of children not living past the age of 5. It is conceivable how people from the Middle Ages would have developed superstitious beliefs to explain unknown conditions and the high infant mortality rate.

 

The changeling ritual described by Stephen of Bourbon consisted passing a child between tree trunks, followed by the mother leaving the infant unattended at the base of a tree on a bed of straw under burning candles. The mother made offerings to spirits and requests to fauns to replace the changeling with her original child. The infant was then submerged in a nearby river to complete the rite. According to Stephen of Bourbon's treatise there were infants who perished during the ritual. The locals stopped performing the changeling ritual, and a harmless rite for sick children developed where tree branches in St. Guinefort's wood were knotted together to symbolically bind the child’s ailments. This tree branch binding rite reportedly continued in the area for centuries.

 

No known painting or statue of St. Guinefort exists from the Middle Ages. Icon paintings sometimes identified as St. Guinefort are actually portraying St. Christopher. Due to a Byzantine mistranslation of the word "Canaanite" centuries ago, St. Christopher is sometimes erroneously portrayed as having the head of a dog. This is not related to the story of St. Guinefort.

 

As any dog owner can attest, canines often end up in places they don't belong. Guinefort has been known to show up in the story of St. Roch, the official patron saint of dogs. Legend tells that St. Roch was starving to death in a forest until a dog brought him food and restored Roch back to health. The dog is sometimes identified as Guinefort, but it is estimated that St. Roch was born decades after Guinefort, so it is unlikely that St. Roch's heroic dog is our gallant greyhound. Could the dog have been a heavenly manifestation of Guinefort sent to help St. Roch?

 

Tradition holds that St. Guinefort's Feast Day is on August 22nd, and St. Roch's is on August 16th, both occurring during the dog days of summer. The term "dog days of summer" comes from the star Sirius and its position in the sky. Sirius's constellation, Canis Major, is shaped like a dog and has often been depicted in astrological illustrations as a greyhound. Sirius’s constellation may have settled the debate around animals having souls by showing us that dogs do indeed have a place in the heavens.

 

Thus concludes the tale of Guinefort, the greyhound who became a saint. While the loyalty that dogs have towards their owners is renowned, the loyalty that the people of this region showed towards their beloved St. Guinefort was impressive... keeping his legend and healing rites alive for centuries despite the condemnation and threats from Church authorities.

 

And in an ironic twist of fate, Stephen of Bourbon, the inquisitor who tried wiping out the greyhound saint ended up enshrining St. Guinefort's legend forever. Without Bourbon's treatise condemning the holy greyhound, St. Guinefort would have most likely disappeared into history as the world modernized. It seems that Guinefort had the last bark!

* * *

 

Card of St. Guinefort with gold foil details for sale.

St. Guinefort and St. Roch 4x6 inch art prints with gold foil details are available for purchase at:

 www.etsy.com/shop/SaintGuinefortStore

 

 

 

FOR FURTHER STUDY...

 

A thorough resource on St. Guinefort is The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century by Jean-Claude Schmidtt (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture). A more accessible exploration of the story is the French movie Sorceress (1987) with English subtitles. The film was praised for its attention to detail surrounding medieval life. While the movie takes liberties with the Stephen of Bourbon story, it provides an engaging glimpse into the period and gives an insightful theory into the mindset of these people. It is a enjoyable film, and I spoke with the movie's producer to confirm that the dog was not harmed during the making. There is an Association of St. Guinefort in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne: www.association-saint-guignefort.fr

 

If you are interested in owning a greyhound, please contact a greyhound adoption organization to learn more about owning these incredible dogs as pets. You can find the nearest organization by doing a web search for "adopt a greyhound."