Who was the strangest Medieval saint?

For the strangest Medieval Saint, may I suggest St. Guinefort, known for being martyred, healing sick children and being a very good boy.

St. Guinefort

By Llancebower – Own work, CC0, Link

The story goes something like this:

In rural France around the 13th century, a nobleman leaves the care of his baby son to his loyal greyhound/babysitter, Guinefort.

Upon returning home the knight finds the cradle upturned, infant missing, and the greyhound’s mouth suspiciously red.

In an instant, the nobleman draws his sword and slays Guinefort.

The snake lies in pieces by the cradle as the father decapitates Guinefort. Note the swaddled child, Public Domain.

Moments later, the baby is discovered safe behind the crib, with a dead viper nearby.

Guinefort had risked his life and saved the baby by attacking the poisonous snake.

Overcome by guilt and grief, the nobleman buries Guinefort in a well near the castle, piles stones to mark the site, and plants trees in the dog’s honor.

The local peasants, upon hearing of Guinefort’s bravery in saving the baby, began to visit the site and, eventually to pray to Guinefort for help with healing their own children.

Rituals began to develop around Guinefort’s resting place.

Baby’s clothes were draped on the nearby bushes and trees to give these plants the ability to avert evil influence.

Women brought babies to the well for its miraculous powers.

One healing ritual involved the mother passing a baby between the trunks of two trees nine times.

At a time when as many as twenty-five percent of children died before the age of one, local people created the saint they needed.

The inquisitor and Guinefort

Around 1261, the inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon visited the Dombes in south-eastern France and found that local women were venerating a St. Guinefort.

He was gratified, until he discovered that St. Guinefort was not a holy man, but a greyhound.

To shut down this dog saint, he had the gravesite destroyed, the trees cut down, and the dogs bones burnt and scattered. 

He threatened the peasants that if they kept worshiping St Guinefort, they would be severely fined.

According to Stephen, something even more sinister then heresy was afoot.

Mothers had invoked forest fauns and devils, asking them to take back their sick child (a changeling!) and return their own plumb and healthy one.

When they [the women with sick children] arrived, they would make offerings of salt and other things; … they would pass the naked babies between the trunks of two trees the mother, on one side, held the baby and threw it nine times to the old woman, who was on the other side. Invoking the demons, they called upon the fauns [fairies] in the forest of Rimite to take the sick, feeble child which, they said, was theirs, and to return their child that the fauns had taken away, fat and well, safe and sound. Having done this, the infanticidal mothers took their children and laid them naked at the foot of the tree on straw from the cradle; then, using the light they had brought with them, they lit two candles, each an inch long, one on each side of  the child’s head and fixed them in – the trunk above it. Then they withdrew…so as not to see the child or hear him crying…

There are even weirder elements to the story:

One woman… was withdrawing from the scene when she saw a wolf come out of the forest towards the baby. If maternal love had not made her feel pity and go back for him, the wolf, or as she put it, the devil in the shape of a wolf, would have devoured the baby.

Despite all of this, even Bourbon describes the slaying of Guinefort as “unjustly killing of a dog so useful” and the dog’s “noble deed and his innocent death”.

Nothing the church did or said could bury the shrine. 

As late as the 1920s, a witch-like old woman had worshiped the dog saint at the cult site, and taken sick children there.

Was there a real dog named Guinefort?

Apparently there was a human Saint Guinefort as well, a martyred missionary whose remains were kept at Padua.

Guess which Saint Guinefort had the dog’s share of worshipers?

Human St Guinefort was quite forgotten by the time his canine namesake was being actively worshiped.

Ethnologist Jean Claude Schmitt discovered that  Guinefort may have been in use as a dog’s name around the time of the cult.

The locals told folklorist A. Vayssière that the original dog Guinefort (or Guignefort) had been so named because it always wagged its tail.  

According to this story, there had been a statue of Saint Guinefort in the old days, and there was a saying that if the dog wagged its tail, men who feared for their virility could rest assured.

The old French guigner could mean either “wink” or “give a sign” while “guiner” is a rare version of the old french verb “graigner” meaning to growl or to bite.

Schmitt also discovered a Medieval poem about a dog called Guinalot.

Could perhaps Guine-fort (bite strong) be another obscure Medieval dog’s name, lost in time?

St Guinefort the faithful hound

St Guinefort slain via Pinterest

The story of St. Guinefort is a variation on the well-travelled “faithful hound” motif.

The antiquary Sabine Baring Gould exposed the tale of the knight and the martyred dog as one form of a common medieval legend.

The earliest version is from AD 540 in an ancient Indian book, the Sanskrit Pantschatantra. This features a brave mongoose saving a baby from a black snake.

Over the years, the Faithful Animal developed into a cat, a falcon, or a tame lion, before ending up as a dog guarding the cradle of its master’s young child.

The legend was so well known that it gave rise to a proverb:

“A hasty act is not a prudent act, but like the man who killed his greyhound”

The fate of the dog’s master varies wildly. In bloodthirsty versions, he kills himself or goes mad; in others he never speaks again, or becomes a recluse.

In a gory German version of the tale, an angry knight beats his faithful dog to death with a long cudgel, and then disembowels himself when he sees the dead snake.

The crying little child is the only survivor.

In gentler variants, he learns the to control his temper, refrains from further rash pet slaughter, and lives happily ever after..

And perhaps learns not to leave childcare to the family pet?


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