By Minjie Su
Somewhere around the second quarter of the thirteenth century, a good Dominican friar known as Stephen de Bourbon (1190-1261) took it upon himself to travel the width and breadth of southern France, to visit, record, and expunge, superstitious and heretical beliefs. One day, when he was preaching and hearing confessions in the diocese of Lyon, he heard the shrine of St Guinefort. Thinking that this must be a local saint who somehow escaped his knowledge, Stephen decided to get to the bottom of the matter, but to his great surprise, St Guinefort turned out to be a dog.
St Guinefort’s Story
The story of St Guinefort is a familiar one. It is an archetype of the ‘faithful dog’ motif, codified as 178A in the Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index. According to Stephen, who faithfully recorded the tale in De supersticione (‘On Superstition’), Guinefort was originally a greyhound belonging to a lord and was put in charge of the his infant son when the lord and lady of the house went out. Upon returning, the nurse saw blood around the cradle and around the dog’s muzzle. The baby must have been killed and eaten by the dog, everyone thought. Out of grief and anger, the lord killed Guinefort.
Upon further investigation, however, they discovered the baby – unharmed – and a snake that apparently died from the dog’s bite. Guinefort, as it turned out, was a loyal and brave dog to the very end: when he saw a snake crawling towards the cradle, he dashed out, knocking the cradle (and the baby) over on the way, and killed the intruder. Realising what grave mistake they had made, the lord buried Guinefort in the castle well and had it piled up with stones to mark the ground. As time passed on, the castle was reduced to ruins, but the legend of the dog was never forgotten. Peasants around the district started to visit Guinefort’s tomb and brought offerings; the dog was worshipped as defender of little children, just as he was in life. Stephen, of course, recognised the Devil’s work in all this; he had the dog’s corpse dug up and burned with the trees around. A fine was put in place for anyone caught worshiping Guinefort in the future.
Other Cases of the “Faithful Dog” motif
Similar tales are also found in other regions. In Wales, in the village of Beddgelert, for instance, Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, killed his dog Gelert under the same circumstance, only that the story ends not with Gelert being worshipped as a saint but with Llywelyn’s remorse and guilt. Though having buried Gelert with great pomp, the Prince kept hearing the dying yelp of the dog. He never smiled again.
Another Celtic-influenced text with the ‘faithful dog’ motif is Arthur and Gorlagon, one of the four Latin Arthurian romances composed in the fourteenth century. Here the author does not really use the motif, but shows off his knowledge of it: when King Gorlagon was trapped in wolfish form, he was taken in by King Torleil (just as Bisclavret and Melion were). Sleeping in the king’s bedroom, the wolf discovered the affair between the queen the king’s squire and attacked the man. To get rid of the wolf (because he was a witness to their crime), and to get away with adultery, the queen hid her child, saying that the wolf killed the baby and would’ve killed her as well, had not the squire rushed in to save her. The king, unlike Guinefort’s master, did not act upon emotions. He thought about the wolf’s past behaviour and pondered the matter, giving the wolf enough time to acquit himself by locating the baby. The lovers were killed instead.
St Christopher’s Tale
Although St Guinefort was denied by Stephen de Bourbon, it does not mean canine-ish beings cannot be canonised. St Christopher is probably the most famous of the non-human saints, but he does not start as a dog-head.
One of the most popular versions of St Christopher’s story is told in the thirteenth century bestseller Legenda aurea (The Golden Legend). There, he is a man – a Canaanite to be precise – known as Reprobus. In his search for the mightiest lord, he served kings and even the Devil himself, but at last he found Christ and was baptised as Christopher. Then he travelled to Lycia, praying to God so that he may understand their language. The pagan king of Lycia took him as a fool and beheaded him after torturing him. Before his ordeal, however, St Christopher instructed the king to make a little clay mixed with his blood to rub on his eye (which was blinded by an arrow that had been meant for St Christopher). The king did as he was told and said, ‘in the name of God and St Christopher!’ He was healed immediately and was converted to Christianity. St. Christopher performed his miracle in martyrdom.
So why a dog?
When it comes to the Orthodox tradition, however, the saint is depicted as having a dog’s head. This canine imagery is believed to have come from a mistranslation of cananeus (Canaanite) to canineus (canine). St Christopher becomes represented as a warrior-saint who belongs to the Cynocephali, and the story that he prays to God to understand the language of Lycia is retold as his praying to God to speak like man. The Cynocephali are a race of dog- headed men who devour each other. They are, therefore, very much similar to the Mermedonians in Andreas, in terms of their cannibalistic appetite. Both the Mermedonians and the Cynocephali are understood as barbarian, pagan, and bestial – the latter probably more so than the former. The Mermedonians are sylfætan (self-eaters) because they have no alternative options – in other words, they do not have an agricultural society like we do. The Cynocephali are the same, but further to that, they are even more bestial and monstrous due to their hybrid bodies. A dog is a carnivore; it eats raw meat and will, if it is out of control, attack men. Why should dogs eat bread and drink wine like humans do?
The Lesson Learned
Both stories of St Guinefort and St Christopher point to the dual nature of the canine: on one hand, they can remain incredibly loyal, but on the other hand, they are beasts; it is in their nature to be wild, irrational, and uncontrollable. This is particularly true with dogs, for they are domesticated as much as wild, and their kinship with wolves adds an extra touch of anxiety and uncertainty. But even wolves may be inspired to do holy things, as St Edmund’s guardian wolf shows us: through God’s will, the beast endures great hunger but refuses to touch the saint’s severed head. He guards the head until the people of East Anglia find it, and follows it all the way to the city to make sure it is safe.
Such a story, shows how great God is, that his power could inspire even the most savage of beasts to perform holy tasks; it also shows that the boundary between human and beast may not be as clear-cut as one would expect: a beast may conquer its nature and become venerated, but vice versa, if a man behaves as a beast, he may fall into bestial status and forfeit his humanity.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Contemporary illustration of Saint Guinefort. Image by L. Bower / Wikimedia Commons