Saint Guinefort was a folk (non-canonical) saint in a small area of France about 20 miles from Lyon. He was known for his healing miracles, especially of children. The details of his legend and the rites of veneration as practiced in the 13th century were preserved by a visiting Inquisitor, Stephen of Bourbon, who wrote extensively of his travels. The peasants near Villeneuve and Villars-en-Dombe told him about how they would take their sick children to by healed at the woodland shrine of their local saint, named Guinefort. Stephen had never heard of this saint, so imagine his surprise when they told him he was actually a greyhound! They shared with him the tragic legend of the Holy Greyhound, but even more shocking was their description of the rites of veneration. Stephen banned the practices upon pain of “spoliation” and had the site destroyed.
So goes his text. But what of the legend? and what of the rites? Because despite Stephen’s efforts, the cult and its practices continued almost unchanged until the 1930s. I find the legend itself heartbreaking:
In the diocese of Lyons, close to the ville 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. The 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. When 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.
But the castle was in due course destroyed by divine will, and the land reduced to a desert abandoned by its inhabitants. 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.
Tragic indeed, but what an invitation to run down the rabbit hole in search of answers to the many questions these few lines raise. Planting a memorial grove of trees sounds very fitting, but why on earth would they throw the dog’s body down a well then fill it with stones? And while his heroism in saving his little human charge is beyond question, how did he become known as the healer of children?
Let’s touch on the rites of veneration, which are more of an abduction into that rabbit hole than invitation:
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 (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.
One woman told me that after she had invoked the fauns and left, she saw a wolf leaving the wood and going to the child and the wolf (or the devil in wolf’s form, so she said) would have devoured it had she not been moved by her maternal feelings and prevented it. On the other hand, if when they returned they found the child alive, they picked it up and carried it to a swiftly flowing river nearby, called the Chalaronne [tributary of the Saône], and immersed it nine times, to the point where if it escaped dying on the spot or soon after, it must have had very tough innards.
We 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.
Where to begin… so many questions, few of which I found adequately addressed no matter where I looked. I had the strong sense of the presence of something Celtic here, what is known as a “survival” of ancient religious practices, but I never did find any such discussion beyond brief comments regarding the “Gaulish” nature of the rites. What better choice then for my master’s thesis, to find my own answers and naturally to find even more questions along the way. The Guinefort cult existed in the oral tradition of a marginalized people in an isolated part of France, so there is little documentation. And yet, from my studies of the Celts, I knew that they had a tendency to look in the between places, so I focused on such liminalities, writing my thesis about “nothing”–but the very special sort of nothing that is liminality.
My life will never be the same since this story captured my imagination and mind. During these past few years of research into the world of Saint Guinefort’s supplicants in the Dombes, my heart and soul followed suit. Now I am about to board a plane to France to see how much of Saint Guinefort and his cult’s survivals I can find. I’ll write of my adventures here!
This introductory post is pinned to the top of my blog. The rest of the posts are dated from the most recent to the oldest, in accordance with the blog format–scroll down if you want to begin at the beginning. Although I managed to write a few posts in media res, I found it nearly impossible to find the time during my big adventure. So much to do and see, not to mention the physical challenges of so much horseback riding, walking, running, and biking, that I chose to be fully present as much as possible so I could write about it upon my return. My many photos and social media posts help me piece together a timeline, jogging my memory as well. I departed for France on July 29 and returned August 12, so assume that most posts dated during that period are either backdated or heavily edited!