The Papacy, Inquisition and Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound
By Rebecca Rist
Reinardus: Yearbook of the International Reynard Society, Vol.30:1 (2019)
Abstract: Just before 1261 the Dominican inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon visited an area of south-eastern France known as the Dombes, in the diocese of Lyons and there found that women were venerating a certain St Guinefort as a healer of children. The Church’s censure was not just a ban on a non-orthodox cult, or a theological statement that animals could not be saints, or a crackdown on magical and heretical practices – although it was all these things. It was also the condemnation of a healing cult that had got badly out of hand. The legend of St Guinefort the Holy Greyhound reveals the medieval Church engaged in a familiar struggle: to balance popular piety with orthodox teaching.
Introduction: In April 1988 the New York Times published a review of Suzanne Schiffman and Paméla Berger’s 1987 film Sorceress (French version Le Moine et la Sorcière), which debued at the 68th Street Playhouse. It described it as “a parable about the clash between a dedicated healer and a dedicated pursuer of heretics, over whether God prefers to tend man’s body or scourge his soul”. The film tells the story of a thirteenth-century Dominican who, deployed to seek out heretics, arrives in a small French village where he discovers a mysterious lady who performs healing rites. Although it received mixed reviews, most notably from the American Historical Review, the psychological exploration of trauma, secrecy, control and oppression, feminist ideas of patriarchy, childbirth and sexual violence, and moral themes of pride, lust, corruption, spiritual blindness, celibacy, virginity, and forgiveness, made it intriguing watching and scholars continue to regard it as an important ethno-historical film about the middle ages.
The film Sorceress was based on an actual recorded event, like its more famous contemporary Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982), for which the American historian of early modern France and professor at Princeton University, Natalie Zemon Davis, acted as a consultant and helped write the screenplay. Sorceress was a retelling of the medieval legend of St Guinefort, the Holy Greyhound, although it differed in some of its content from the original. In recent years the medieval tale has been much explored, most famously by the historian Jean-Claude Schmitt, whose work on the holy greyhound has been translated into many languages. Nevertheless, as we shall explore, certain aspects of the tale require further examination.
Top Image: Contemporary illustration of Saint Guinefort, a greyhound sainted by people in the Dombes region of France around the 13th century. Image by L. Bower