Given the general state of the world, I thought today would be a good day to consider the best saint to ever have the title stripped of them, and what that means about personal religious devotion versus Church ideals in the medieval period. Yes there are some very high minded reasons why we can discuss St Guinefort, but my interest has nothing to do with that, as will soon become clear.
We are aware of St Guinefort thanks to the thirteenth-century Dominican preacher Stephen of Bourbon. Stephen was a historian and loved to preach, sure, but he had a lot of problems with you people. In particular, he was super worried about the specific ways in which people could be influenced by demons, or in his words, “…the superstition of the vain cult of divinations, incantations, oracles, the diverse devilish delusions by which the Devil attacks the Christian people, drawing after him with the tail of fallacious seduction innumerable souls of the stupid.”
As you may have guessed from this particular obsession and also the casual condescension, Stevie was one of the first inquisitors. Now I know because I just wrote “inquisitor” you are gonna jump right to thinking about the Spanish Inquisition, (In your faces Monty Python. I just expected it.) but the medieval version was not quite as organised, or as deadly. You are thinking of the early modern Church. I assure you. You are. (Although some people absolutely did get killed.)
The first of the medieval inqusitions took place in the twelfth century and was sent against the Good Men of Languedoc aka the Cathars and Waldensians in what is now France. It was fairly whack. I am absolutely team Waldensian.
Stephen on the other hand was a part of a second wave of inquisitors sent out by Pope Gregory IX to just make sure that all that heretic killing had actually worked. He sent out waves of Franciscans and Dominicans to go find out where people weren’t Catholic-ing correctly. This mostly amounted to him wandering around preaching at people and getting them to confess to them once they were suitably emotionally exhausted. Anyway, it was on one such trip where Stephen learned about the very holy and wonderful Guinefort. He was in the diocese of Lyons, being nosy, when some women told him they took their sick babies to be blessed by St Guinefort. Steve was like, whomst the fuck is that? I do not know of this saint. (That is not a direct quote.)
A thirteenth-century friar not knowing about a locally favoured saint is not in and of itself odd. One of the big ways that saints became saints in the medieval period was through local veneration. This was especially earlier on in the medieval period when communication was more difficult and before the Church has built up a robust legal apparatus to centralise the process of canonisation. Basically, anything that got people interested in Catholicism was alright by them, so sure, bring your weird local cult in. In the thirteenth century canonisation due to local veneration was less common, but in more cut off communities it was theoretically possible that some holy person had lived and died, performed some miracles, but had escaped the notice of Rome. Traditionally, if that was indeed the case, the Church would more or less take the locals at their words and absorb the saint into the bosom of the Holy Mother Church.
The women in question, suitably awed by the visiting preacher, were eager to tell Stephen about Guinefort. Guinefort, you see was a martyr. He had lived “…close to the vill of the nuns called Villeneuve, on the land belonging to the lord of Villars-en-Dombe, there was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. But when the lord and lady and the nurse too had left the house, leaving the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child’s cradle.”
Oh no! But don’t worry Guinefort was there to save the day. You see, “[t]he greyhound, who had remained there, saw this, dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child’s cradle which he left all bloodied as was his mouth and head, with the snake’s blood, and stood there by the cradle all beaten about by the snake.”
You fucking heard me. The greyhound. My hero Guinefort was a motherfucking GOOD BOY.
But yeah unfortunately even though Guinefort was a big time baby saving hero, he was all beat up in a room with a knocked over noble baby cradle. “Then the nurse came back and saw this, she thought the child had been killed and eaten by the dog and so gave out an almighty scream. The child’s mother heard this, rushed in, saw and thought the same and she too screamed. Then the knight similarly once he got there believed the same, and drawing his sword killed the dog. Only then did they approach the child and find him unharmed, sleeping sweetly in fact. On further investigation, they discovered the snake torn up by the dog’s bites and dead. Now that they had learned the truth of the matter, they were embarrassed (dolentes) that they had so unjustly killed a dog so useful to them and threw his body into a well in front of the castle gate, and placing over it a very large heap of stones they planted trees nearby as a memorial of the deed.”
Being as Guinefort was so incredibly good and brave and killed 4 truth, “[t]he local peasants hearing of the dog’s noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other needs.”
Now this, is incredibly good and wholesome and wonderful, in my opinion as a historian. From our standpoint the thing that is important about belief and religious practice is what people actually do and how they believe. As I have said before I have absolutely zero interest in getting into some self-satisfied well, actually battle about the nature and existence of divinity with a bunch of dead peasants. They saw Guinefort as a saint and prayed to him, and took their children to his well/grave and asked for intercession and protection. Lovely. Absolutely heartwarming. I love to see it.
Stephen, on the other hand, as a Church accredited member of the hater patrol, was extremely not into this wonderful family time. Instead, of course, he found it to be demonic and centred around a bunch of women demon worshipping. To be fair though, it does sound like stuff out at the well was maybe kinda sketch monster.
According to him the women, “with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league to another nearby castle where an old woman could teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the right spot. When they got there, they offered salt and certain other things, hung the child’s little clothes (diapers?) on the bramble bushes around, fixing them on the thorns. They then put the naked baby through the opening between the trunks of two trees, the mother standing on one side and throwing her child nine times to the old woman on the other side, while invoking the demons to adjure the fauns in the wood of “Rimite” to take the sick and failing child which they said belonged to them (the fauns) and return to them their own child big, plump, live and healthy. Once this was done, the killer mothers took the baby and placed it naked at the foot of the tree on the straws of a cradle, lit at both ends two candles a thumbsbreadth thick with fire they had brought with them and fastened them on the trunk above. Then, while the candles were consumed, they went far enough away that they could neither hear nor see the child. In this way the burning candles burned up and killed a number of babies, as we have heard from others in the same place.”
So I mean, that is pretty wild. If that is indeed what the kind women of the Lyonnaise countryside were up to … yeah that doesn’t sound much like Catholicism. I guess I can see what Stephen’s issue with all of this would be. Probably it is not great to be accidentally burning babies to death? IDK. That’s just my modern take on the situation.
However, what is interesting about this is we can see what a difference there could be – even in the thirteenth century, which is pretty late in the game in terms of medieval history – between localised rural understandings of holiness and practice, and those of learned individuals who are high up in the administration of the Church. The women around Villeneuve didn’t seem to really understand that what they were doing, what with the salt and passing babies through trees and also praying to a dog, was not canon. Stephen was alerted to all of this because he was preaching against sorcery. In those sermons he no doubt touched on some aspects of their own religious practice, which flagged up to the locals that what they were doing wasn’t acceptable. In fact, we see that as soon as they hear from Stephen that what they were doing is sorcery, they go and confess “that they had carried their children to St. Guinefort”. They weren’t trying to do anything wrong. He was called “St Guinefort”, how were they supposed to know? The minute they knew they were doing something wrong they knocked it off. What more were they supposed to do?
And here is the thing, given the, um, unpleasantness that had accompanied some inquisitorial activities, and the fact that Stephen is so weird, you might think he came down hard on this community. He didn’t! Instead, he and his associates “went to the place and assembled the people and preached against the practice. We then had the dead dog dug up and the grove of trees cut down and burned along with the dog’s bones. Then we had an edict enacted by the lords of the land threatening the spoliation and fining of any people who gathered there for such a purpose in future.”
This is more or less an admission that the Church just hasn’t managed to get its message out to certain places in Europe at this point, and that people make up their own religious practice in that vacuum. Stephen doesn’t think that this is necessarily proof of their unrepentant love of Satan or anything, just evidence that they need more direct instruction. So he provides that. Not all heresy has to be corrected through death. Just sometimes extremely good dogs get their graves desecrated. Still, I rebuke it.
Clearly, this story is extremely interesting, and there are a lot of things that we can take away from it. However, I mostly just want you to know that I love St Guinefort and the Church can’t stop me. Deal with it.
 Stephen de Bourbon, De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/guinefort.asp. <Accessed 14 May 2020>.
 Ibid. Look, whatever. You don’t want proper footnotes go read a basic blog. In this house we reference.
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5 thoughts on “My fav [not] Saints: St Guinefort”
Hello, thank you for the post (and your posts in general, I enjoy reading them). It’s the first time I have heard of Guinefort, but the story is familiar to me from the tale of Gelert, the faithful dog commemorated by burial at Beddgelert in Wales. The only difference is the location and the foe – Gelert killed a wolf, not a snake. And the veneration, actually, I don’t think anybody ever prayed to Gelert, although I wouldn’t be surprised. I was wondering if you had come across other similar stories, or are there only two historical Good Boys Who Defended Babies And Got Killed For It or, in fact, just one and a copy?
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Those are the two that I know about. I am also aware of Gelert, and love it, and I think it is interesting how the story of Gelert is just a generalised cautionary tale about the dangers of being hasty, whereas with Guinefort it is a cautionary tale about demonology. Such a contrast!
Wikipedia has a discussion about the theme, going back to a version in sanskrit with a mongoose instead of a dog all the way to ‘Lady and the Tramp’:
That is delightful!