Guinefort-art – 8/30/06
³Guinefort: The Sainted Dog of France² by Mevanwy verch Tuder de Courtecadeno.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
[This article was first published in the May 2005 issue of ³The Barge², the newsletter of the Barony of Three Rivers in St. Louis, Missouri. You can find more of Mevanwyıs work on her website at: http://www.courtecadeno.com - Stefan]
GUINEFORT: THE SAINTED DOG OF FRANCE
by Mevanwy verch Tuder de Courtecadeno
All over the world, threading through a multitude of diverse cultures, and as some scholars assert, perhaps originating in prehistoric times, there has been passed down a legend of a heroic, selfless greyhound. The beloved companion to a nobleman, chief or king, and the guardian of this esteemed person's only heir. And always the story ends in tragedy, with a case of hasty judgment, rash actions, inconsolable regret, and lifelong penance.
But, only in Medieval France did this story take such a hold upon the hearts of its people and grow roots so deep into the Gallic soil and soul, that this legendary greyhound would literally be sainted by the populace and prayed to for aid and healing, particularly of children, for more than 700 years. The name of this holy dog-martyr, according to French legend, was Guinefort.
The earliest text documenting this cult is recorded from the location of its actual shrine, a sacred grove in the woods near the small village of Sandrans, in Dombes, north of Lyon (figure 1).
A Dominican friar, Etienne de Bourbon, sent as an Inquisitor to this part of France, relates his findings in the work entitled, "De Supersticione", within the section called "De Adoratione Guinefortis Canis", written in 1240 AD. Etienne cannot hide his astonishment, or his dismay, as he records his experiences with the locals of Sandrans:
"On the Worship of the Dog Guinefort,
Sixthly, I should speak of offensive superstitions...This recently happened in the diocese of Lyons where, when I preached against the reading of oracles, and was hearing confession, numerous women confessed that they had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. As I thought that this was some holy person, I continued with my enquiry and finally learned that this was actually a greyhound, which had been killed in the following manner:
In the diocese of Lyons, near the enclosed nuns' village called Neuville, on the estate of the Lord of Villars, was a castle, the lord of which and his wife had a baby boy. One day, when the lord and lady had gone out of the house, and the nurse had done likewise, leaving the baby alone in the cradle, a huge serpent entered the house and approached the baby's cradle. Seeing this, the greyhound, which had remained behind, chased the serpent and attacking it beneath the cradle, upset the cradle and bit the serpent all over, which defended itself, biting the dog equally severely, Finally, the dog killed it and threw it well away from the cradle. The cradle, the floor, the dog's mouth and head were all drenched in the serpent's blood. Although badly hurt by the serpent, the dog remained on guard beside the cradle. When the nurse came back and saw all this she thought that the dog had devoured the child, and let out a scream of misery. Hearing it the child's mother also ran up, looked, thought the same thing and screamed too. Likewise the knight, when he arrived, thought the same thing and drew his sword and killed the dog. Then, when they went closer to the baby they found it safe and sound, sleeping peacefully. Casting around for some explanation, they discovered the serpent, torn to pieces by the dog's bites, and now dead. Realizing then the true facts of the matter, and deeply regretting having unjustly killed so useful a dog, they threw it into a well in front of the manor door, threw a great pile of stones on top of it, and planted trees beside it, in memory of the event. Now, by divine will, the manor was destroyed and the estate reduced to a wild land, and so was abandoned by its inhabitants.
But the peasants, hearing of the dog's conduct and of how it had been killed, although innocent, and for a deed for which it might have expected praise, visited the place, honored the dog as a martyr, prayed to it when they were sick or in need of something..."
It is at the end of his text that de Bourbon assures his audience, the Church authorities, that he then called together the residents and had them destroy the shrine, which included burning the remains of the dog.
Or so the righteous friar thought, for the peasants "proof" of this destruction must surely have been falsehoods created to appease the monk, and more importantly, to thwart the wrath of the Holy Roman Church. The least of this wrath could involve the seizure of their meager yet essential possessions, the most of it could mean the loss of their lives. For not only did this shrine continue to exist for another 700 years, researchers to almost the mid twentieth century found evidence of its viable use. The reverence that the people of the Dombe region had for their little saint was stronger than their fear of retribution by a very powerful force.
Why did this tale resonate so deeply in their hearts? What are the possible origins of this story, and why have such similar stories survived for millennium across the globe?
That the greyhound (from the Saxon word grighund) or, at least a definite sight hound type, has been the hunting and fireside companion of humans since prehistoric times is found in the evidence of these dogs' ancient skeletal remains amongst human ones, and in cave paintings showing the distinctive shape of the sight hound (deep chest, long legs, torso and neck), usually alongside human figures engaged in hunting scenes.
The languages these stories are told in, and in what venues, also attest to the longevity of this archetype. We find it in Sanskrit in the Panca-tantra. It also exists in the Persian, and Hebrew. In one Persian saying, the greyhound is appointed by God to be the measure of mankind's goodness or sin. It is in the Old Testament that the greyhound is singled out as one of the few acceptable animals to live amongst humans. In Arab cultures, even after the advent of Islam, though the dog in general is seen as unclean, sight hounds are still highly cherished and allowed in the home. The Celtic cultures in general esteemed the sight hound so much as to bestow upon great warriors the title of "Hound" (Cu in Irish). The greyhound was seen as the very epitome of loyalty, devotion, bravery, and the most efficient of hunters.
Many in the Western World know of the Welsh story of Gellert, practically identical to the story Etienne de Bourbon relates. And though accounts of this hound's actual burial site could very well be more modern in origin and apocryphal, we know the story to be at least from the Middle Ages. In the Rous Roll, we see Wales Herself represented by the crest of a greyhound in a cradle! (figure 2)
This fable also had staying power. We find a version of it in "Schimpf und Ernst", circa 1520. An engraving from the Strasbourg edition of 1535 illustrates the familiar and tragic scenario. (figure 3)
But, why in Medieval France did this great esteem for a greyhound become holy devotion?
Some scholars have quickly pointed to the illiteracy of the common populace of the Dark and Middle Ages, and the use of icons and similar visual images by the early Church to convey scripture and doctrine, as one intersection where the indigenous people's folklore, and more ancient, pagan beliefs and images, could have uniquely, and erroneously, grafted with the then new (Christian) religion's teachings.
An argument in this vein sites the early images of the (still) quite popular Saint Christopher. Many show the figure of a man with a dog's head. (figure 4)
Some very early texts refer to him as "Cynocephalus", literally "dog-head". This has been attributed to both misinterpretations of language ascribing his ethnic origins and popular folktales relating his own conversion to Christianity. In the latter case, the fable states that Christopher was so handsome, that it was too difficult for him to live an austere life. Other people's attention to him, and his own temptations to vanity, stood in his way to true piety and service to God. So, he prayed to be made ugly, and was "rewarded" his wish by being given a dog's face! Later, in Italy, this saint was ascribed the power to heal contagious disease.
A case could also be made for the possible distortion of his names (both Cynocephalus and Christopher) as his veneration crossed through lingual territories, eventually becoming confused with that of another Guinefort, a medieval knight also made a saint.
But, my own research brings me to another possible conclusion as to the origins of this sainted greyhound that healed the sick: That being the pagan cult of Asclepius, the god-physician. The healing cult of Asclepius originated in ancient Greece, and was readily adopted by the Romans, as was the entire Greek pantheon. Temples in dedication to this god were basically a cross between what we would see today as a typical "health spa", and truly the origins of the first organized hospitals. Mystic and spiritual ritual was often combined with tangible, herbal remedies.
This cult was extremely successful and long-lived, as the Romans spread their empire, and gods, across the known world. The Celtic peoples, though at great odds with their conquerors, often vigorously incorporated the deities of Rome with their own, often similar, gods and goddesses. This was especially true in Gaul (modern day France) and Britain. The ruins of Asclepian temples are found throughout England and France. The later, and powerfully influential, cult of Mithraism was to incorporate many aspects and archetypes of the Asclepian, and entrench these archetypes even deeper into the collective unconscious of the Celtic, and even the broader European, culture and psyche. This tenacious cult, with its Zoroastrian origins, was even to influence the much later Christianity.
But, why do I dig into the cult of Asclepius as the fertile root bed of the French greyhound saint? Because of a central figure and facilitator in the former Greco-Roman cult's belief system: That creature being the healing greyhound, or cynotherapist. These greyhounds, which were kept at the temples, appear to be akin to an animal totem for the god Asclepius. It was believed that their lick had great healing powers. People's affection and tokens given to the greyhounds were offerings made to the god himself. We have in the Latin, "testimonials" of healings, and thus, appropriate prayers of thanks. Especially poignant, are the texts relating these sacred greyhounds' affinity for, and gentleness with, the ill children.
Small, beautifully detailed, greyhound figurines have been found in abundance at these temple ruins across Britain and wider Europe. (figure 5)
Excerpted and condensed from, "HOLY DOG! THE STRANGE BUT TRUE STORY OF A GREYHOUND SAINT" copyright 2005,2006 Deborah A. Wodraska (Mevanwy verch Tuder de Courtecadeno)
This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Barge, a publication of the Barony of Three Rivers, Kingdom of Calontir, under the auspices of then editor Nancee Beattie (HE Meredydd ferch Owain).
You can make your very own pilgrimage (albeit virtually!) to St. Guinefortıs Grove at http://www.courtecadeno.com/RenFaire.html. Though, the noble fewterers of the Order of Saint Guinefort who tend the Royal Kennels would be honored for you to some day repast with them in person!
The Authorıs sources include but are not limited to this
Bibliography, and Links of Interest:
Schmitt, Jean-Claude, The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century (English translation by Martin Thom) 1983
De Marche, A. Lecoy, Anecdotes historieques 1877
Saintyves, P. (Emile Nourry), En Marge de la Legende Doree: Songes, miracles et survivances, 1930
Research notes of Dr. Pamela Berger of Boston College, shared with the author.
Dr. Berger wrote the original story, and co-wrote the screenplay, for the 1987 film, Sorceress, which is about the legend of St. Guinefort. This beautiful and authentically staged film is truly about so much more. There is one scene in particular where the writing and the acting come together so movingly, that if the hair on the back of your neck doesnıt stand up, youıre not human!
Arnott, Stephen, Le Saint Levrier, an article appearing in France: A Quarterly Review of La Vie Francaise, Summer 1998.
Weir, Anthony, A Holy Dog and a Dog-Headed Saint, appearing on his website at http://www.beyond-the-pale.co.uk/dogsaints.htm
Lesson texts of Paul Halsall of Fordham Univ. at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/guinefort.html
Thurston, Mary Elizabeth, The Lost History of the Canine Race, 1996
Branigan, Cynthia A., The Reign of the Greyhound, 1997
Cunliffe, Juliette, The Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds 1999
Fogle, D.V.M., Bruce, The Encyclopedia of the Dog, 1995
Orthodox Church of America – Feasts and Saints:
Copyright <year> by Debi Wodraska. <mevanwy at courtecadeno.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
 The use of the word greyhound in this work is in keeping with the usual literal translation of the Norman/French levrier, which in turn was the name traditionally given to dogs of a certain body type and function rather than what we in present times would define as a pure breed. The author would like to note here that it is a credit to the Federation Cynologique International (the Belgian Kennel Club) that it includes in its Dixieme Groupe (10th Group) all breeds which it deems Levriers: Greyhounds, Whippets, Sloughis, Galgos, Charniques, Barzois (Borzois), Deerhounds, Irish Wolfhounds, Persians (Salukis), Afhgans and Petits Levriers Italians (Italian Greyhounds). The Basenji and Rhodesian Ridgeback are not included in this grouping.