Finding Saint Guinefort and Beyond

Once upon a time on the Internet, I stumbled upon a greyhound saint named Guinefort. The story of his martyrdom and the healing cult that sprang up on the site planted the seed for what has become a fascination bordering at times on obsession. Dogs have always been very dear to me, their wordless adoration, loyalty, and unconditional love a model of being to which I can only aspire. So the idea of a dog saint seemed perfectly reasonable to me, just as it was in a simpler time to the inhabitants of a remote region near Lyon, France. They sought miracles in a time when a holy greyhound seemed to offer a better chance for healing than what passed as medicine. More remarkable than any subset of details concerning the cult of Saint Guinefort is its longevity. All of this taken together convinced me that this was no mere folk saint or quaint tradition. I immersed myself in the subject while researching and writing my master’s thesis, which offers an academic explanation that includes nearly as many questions as answers. The restrictions of that medium prevented me from expressing the influence Saint Guinefort has had on my life. A year later I feel ready to begin telling that story, the story of my Guinefort. These blog entries are back dated but I base them on numerous notes, videos, and photos.

The cult itself arose in the context of the history and the culture of France, so to celebrate finishing my thesis and getting my degree, I spent about two weeks there. After a day or so in Paris, I took a train to Marseille to spend about the same amount of time there. Brief, but mainstream tourism was hardly my focus. I was itching to get to the Dombes to visit the site where this particular Saint Guinefort cult was practiced. But after stopping in Marseille, I embarked on a five day equestrian station ride through the Luberon, in Provence. I wanted to get feel for the region and what it was like to travel there before modern transportation. Let’s not pretend that I was too concerned with emphasizing the “working” part of this vacation though. Despite the scholarly interests that sent me there, I made sure that any research I did would be fun too.

Today the greyhound Saint Guinefort (there is a human Guinefort in the hagiography) is largely unknown in France, even in the Dombes. When I asked for information about him from tourist information offices, they were always very polite and helpful, but they corrected me regarding the “legend.” It became clear that the healing cult was long forgotten. My presence in these remote villages was probably of more curiosity to them than my interest in their long-forgotten folk saint. (When I checked in to my hotel, the clerk asked me several different ways if I actually meant to stay for four nights. Apparently no one goes there.)

Looking back on the few posts I made from France I realize there is a lot to be said for journaling during a trip. There is a spark to in media res accounts, yet I do not regret my surrender to the joy of remaining in the moment throughout my adventures there. All my life I dreamed of going to France, so all I wanted to do was roam the beautiful countryside. Writing was the last thing on my agenda. It was difficult to find the occasional moments I did manage to write notes, since a lot happened in just over two weeks. The best I could do was to be present as much as possible.

Memory’s a slippery thing though, and I have often had the suspicion that we risk losing the deepest truth of the moment if we take too many photos or write or even speak about monumental experiences at the time. I read something in Ong, I believe, about some oral people who would listen to a poem or song that would go on for perhaps thousands of lines. Then they would just let it sit so it could sink into memory. The interviewer was surprised that they wouldn’t start working on making it stick, the way we might prepare for a recitation, repeating the words over and over. But the people said they had to internalize it and personalize it. Something to remember about orality is that there is no such thing as a verbatim record. Who is to say the story was any different from that of another storyteller? That does not diminish the truth of the story, the crux, the part that makes the point and communicates.

So much of my visit to France reminds me of my often haphazard thesis process, following various hunches that would propel me into directions I never expected to go. Then once I arrived at these various stages in my research and started writing some more, I wasn’t entirely sure how I got there or where to proceed next. Heaps of notes led me to more reading, more thoughts on what I read, more ideas from any new information. All this happened to me in France too, the ideas I would get for further Guinefort research flooding my consciousness until the entire country became my inspiration. Even before leaving Boston, I had this idea that I wanted to somehow present this story to the general public.

After my token visits to Paris and Marseille, interposed with my wide-eyed observation of the sights from the train window, I found myself exploring a portion of Cathar country on ancient trails astride a sturdy horse. Both the riding schedule and the terrain were challenging enough to transport me back a millennium. Days of riding under the hot Provencal summer sun, through thorny paths that were often impossibly (and frighteningly) steep, physically provoked my imagination to meander beyond the limits placed by the mostly intellectual nature of the research process. However, my research definitely informed the direction of this mental time travel. “This is how I would have traveled a thousand years ago,” I thought as we passed huge, looming cliffs through thick forests with thorny branches ripping me to pieces along the way. “I would have hired a guide and hoped for the best, knowing we could die at any moment.” But no agents of the Medieval Church or even random highwaymen ever disturbed the peace of the timeless scenery of modern day Provence, nothing worse than the maddening flies that plagued my horse and challenged my limited horsemanship.

Halfway through my trail ride, the framework for telling my own Guinefort story materialized. Some explanation of how “once upon a time” I became fascinated and ultimately obsessed with the story of a Holy Greyhound who saved a little baby from a snake, only to be killed for his efforts. He was the ultimate underdog, and doesn’t everyone love these improbable heroes! Maybe I could tell it in such a way that explained how I found myself so immersed in research that I lived in this parallel universe for the past few years.

The author at Fort de Buoux astride the hard-working Escudo

My thesis explains the longevity of the Guinefort cult by placing it in the religious, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic context. Its personal application to my life only became clear to me during the time that has passed since my visit to France. These various encounters with the cult bonded me to the story in much the same way it did to the ancient practitioners, who, as impoverished peasants, could identify too well with the tragedy of this underdog. The miracles of Saint Guinefort continue for as long as the story of the people’s saint inspires us to believe in the transformative power of selfless love. That is the story I want to share.