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The Dog Who Became a Saint

1880 Painting of a greyhound. Public domain work supplied via Wikimedia Commons

St. Francis of Assisi is often associated with animals. His philosophy of respect and stewardship over nature has cemented him in history as a patron of ecology, nature, and the creatures with which we share this planet. Like many other saints, Francis’s gentleness towards animals is just one of the many pious behaviors associated with his beatification. (1) Many saints are remembered for loving animals and for commanding the respect, obedience, and affection of creatures both domestic and wild. But no saint could embody the relationship between sainthood and the animal kingdom quite like Saint Guinefort.

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How Does a Dog Attain Sainthood?

According to legend, Guinefort’s journey into sainthood began with yet another animal-loving saint. Saint Roch lived from 1295 to 1327. Born in Montpellier, Roch was born into privilege, but lived an ascetic life due to his own generosity. During his travels, Roch witnessed the devastation of the plague and dedicated himself to driving out this vicious disease. (2) Eventually, St. Roch was overcome by the very disease which he fought against. Afraid to burden or infect others, he retreated to a cave to wait for recovery or for death. There, Roch was miraculously saved by his faithful dog who brought bread to him until he was well enough to return to Montpellier. There, he was not recognized due to his unkempt appearance and he subsequently died in prison. (3) Now, Saint Roch is associated with invalids, healing, and dogs. He is often pictured with a dog at his side.

Legend has it that the dog who saved Saint Roch was Guinefort himself. This is probably not true, as the earliest mention of Guinefort’s story actually predates Saint Roch by several decades. A French inquisitor by the name of Stephen of Bourbon discovered and recorded Guinefort’s story which was becoming increasingly popular folklore in the French countryside. (4)

Faithful Dog
Copy of a painting exhibited by Jeanne-Elisabeth Chaudet at the Salon of 1801 (# 62) in the collection of the musée d’art et d’histoire de Rochefort (musée Hèbre de Saint-Clément). A child asleep in his cradle, in the care of a courageous dog who has just killed a huge viper near him. Inspired by the legend Saint Guinefort, a greyhound who saved a young child from the bite of a snake. Public domain work supplied via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Guinefort is this. After the death of St. Roch, his faithful greyhound dog was sent to live in the household of a noble lord. There, he quickly became a beloved companion. One day, the lord of the household went on a hunting expedition, leaving Guinefort in the bedroom of his infant son. When the lord returned, his son’s bedroom was in a disarray. The child’s crib was overturned and much of the furniture was scattered or damaged. Blood and torn clothes lie scattered all over the bedroom floor. As the nobleman observed this scene with mounting horror, Guinefort bounded happily toward his master. Blood covered the hound’s jaws as he greeted the horrified lord. Assuming that Guinefort must have devoured his child, who was nowhere to be seen, the nobleman slew the hound with a single swing of his sword. At that very moment, the lord heard the telltale babbling of an infant. There, beneath his overturned crib, sat the child who was content and unharmed. Not far away from the child, his relieved father noticed the remains of a venomous snake who wad apparently been torn apart by the fearless Guinefort. Realizing his mistake, the lord was overcome with remorse. He buried Guinefort and built a shrine to commemorate his courage and fidelity, as well as to atone for his own hasty judgment. According to some versions of the legend, including that of Stephen of Bourbon, the noble’s castle was struck down by the power of God himself for this mistake. (5)

The story of Guinefort and the shrine commemorating his life was so moving to the people of the region that they declared him a saint and began to venerate him. This struck the aforementioned inquisitor, Stephen of Bourbon, as heretical and somewhat Pagan. Some of the rituals which took place at the shrine included prayers over babies suspected to be “changelings.” Stephen records the events as such:

The 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. They were seduced and often cheated by the Devil so that he might in this way lead men into error. Women especially, 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 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 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.

Supersticione by Stephen of Bourbon (6)

Stephen of Bourbon, in response to these rituals, had the shrine destroyed and the dog’s bones exhumed. According to his own account, the bones of a dog were found at the site, lending some credibility to the tale of the noble greyhound. After the shrine of St. Guinefort was destroyed, an edict was enacted banning the veneration of the unofficial local “saint.” Despite this, affection for the martyred canine persisted.

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The Faithful Canine of Legend

While Stephen of Bourbon’s account does seem to indicate that Guinefort, or at least a dog, was buried beneath the shrine which commemorated him, fans of literature or mythology may find that the story does not sit quite right. This is probably because they have heard it somewhere before. The story of Saint Guinefort closely follows a storytelling motif which dates back to ancient times.

Undated illustration of Llywelen’s hound, Gelert. Public domain work supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Llywelyn the Great was a Welsh king who reigned during the first half of the thirteenth century. Known for a number of military accomplishments and alliances, one piece of Llywelyn’s personal history is now thought to be part of a greater tapestry of mythology and storytelling. According to legend, Llywelyn’s favorite dog was a hound by the name of Gelert. Like Guinefort, Gelert was left with the king’s infant heir whilst the king went hunting. When Llywelyn returned, again, his child was missing, Gelert was covered with blood, and the child’s cradle was overturned. Llywelyn slew Gelert only to find his child unharmed and a dead wolf near the child’s crib. From then on, it is said that Llywelyn never smiled again. It is remarkable just how similar the Gelert story is to that of Guinefort. (7)

The Brahmin and the Mongoose is a still older tale in which tells a similar story. This time set in India, the hound is replaced with a faithful mongoose who slays a cobra to protect a child. Again, the mongoose is hastily killed by his master after a chaotic misunderstanding. This tale is first found in ancient Sanskrit texts. (8)

Examples of this motif are everywhere. From urban legends to local folklore. Even Disney has tackled this story. A scene from Lady and the Tramp (1955) sees the titular Tramp expelled from Lady’s home and sent to the pound for his aggressive behavior. Fortunately for this animated character, he is exonerated when the human characters learn that he had only been protecting their child from a rat. (9)

The Legacy of Saint Guinefort

Despite the edict banning such activities, St. Guinefort continued to be venerated by locals. As recently as the nineteenth century, rituals involving knotting together wood near the site of St. Guinefort’s shrine were recorded. (10) In modern times, Guinefort’s story has found new notoriety thanks to the internet. He is thought of as a protective spirit and a guardian of children and infants especially. Some also see Guinefort as a figure who looks over pets and guides them at the time of their death. (11)

A statue of Gelert located near to Gelert’s grave. By Wikimedia Commons user Tanith17. Creative Commons 4.0

So, was a dog really made a saint? Was Guinefort a real dog? Is the story of Guinefort true? The answers to these questions, I think, are not quite, maybe, and probably not. A saint is officially recognized when they are canonized by the Catholic church. In this sense, Guinefort has never been a saint. The story of Guinefort has inspired the devotion of many believers who invoke the faithful hound’s spirit. If such veneration is enough to “canonize” someone, then by that measure Guinefort certainly qualifies. The fact that bones might have been found beneath the shrine, indicates that a dog could have been buried there. Whether that dog was Guinefort or whether he truly died for protecting his master’s child, nobody can truly know. Faith, however, is not based in absolutes nor does it find its home in the dusty annals of the realm of historical facts. The story of Guinefort, and the many similar stories which constitute the faithful dog archetype, has become so popular because it resonates with so many people. Love for animals, regret and anguish in the face of our own mistakes, and appreciation for the sacrifices our loved ones make are all universal and deeply impactful human experiences. Through these shared experiences, Guinefort has become a saint of sorts. Good dog.

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