Monday, August 27, 2018

Who was St. Guinefort?

If you love dogs and you have had any minimal exposure to Catholicism, you're probably already familiar with St. Francis of Assisi. In the Catholic church, God is considered to be rather too busy to always help you find your lost car keys, which is usually when people decide to pray, particularly when they're late. In response, the church decided to name saints: people who definitely, totally, are 100% in heaven and can petition God's help on your behalf. Because, you know, God might listen to them. It's weird to think of God as a busy businessman with lots of little secretaries taking calls but then again, the religion is largely based on people getting tempted by a talking snake's fruit, so it's best not to think too hard about it.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals. He's often depicted as a statue in gardens, wearing a little monk robe, a bird perched on his shoulder. St. Francis was the Disney princess of saints and therefore got a really great gig in the animal department of God's mail room. (Lesser saints have been stuck with answering the prayers of beekeepers, bellmakers, and beltmakers. St. Drogo got landed double-duty with both the patronage of coffee houses and ugly people. Saints don't just have people or places of speciality; they also have actions. If you get attacked by wolves, ask St. Defendens for help, although you could also maybe ask Francis, who, legend has it, tamed a wolf named Gubbio. On the other hand, if it's pirates who are attacking you, forget Francis; you'll want to ask for Albinus, patron saint of not being attacked by pirates. Since most of us only ever call upon saints after a night of hard drinking, I will take this opportunity to note that St. Bibiana is the patroness of hangovers.)

I could go on and on about saints because there's somewhere in the range of 10,000 of them. No one even knows for sure because, when the church first began, getting to be a saint was not a formal process.  Official canonizations didn't begin until 993, probably when someone was like, "oh, man, we're gonna end up with too many saints if we don't make the entry requirements a little bit tighter, here."

(Side note: the first saint formally canonized by a pope was Ulrich, whose specialties include anyone from the city of Augsburg, Germany, as well as pregnant women or women in labor, and anyone who's been bitten by a rabid dog.)

But for the sake of keeping this blog post concise, I want to focus on a single character from history: St. Guinefort.

Don't worry if you've never heard of him.  He's fairly obscure; the Catholic church has been denying him for years, probably because he's a dog.

But don't they know...?

The formal stance of the Catholic church has traditionally been that animals lack souls or agency or free will and therefore cannot "earn" a ticket to heaven and therefore cannot be saints.  But that didn't stop the people of 13th-century Lyon, France, from proclaiming Guinefort to be a Good Boy.

Making them honorary Presbyterians and/or cult members.

Although you've never heard of Guinefort, you've almost definitely heard of a story similar to Guinefort's.  According to legend, Guinefort was a faithful greyhound.  One day, upon returning from a hunting trip, the knight who owned him arrived to his castle to discover his infant son lying on the floor of the nursery, crying, the room in disarray: overturned furniture, pieces of suits of armor everywhere, I assume.  I don't know what medieval nurseries looked like.

Anyway, the knight found Guinefort there, bloody and acting weird, so naturally, he took the dog outside and beheaded him.

Later, he found the body of a venomous snake in the room and realized what had happened: Guinefort had selflessly attacked the snake to save the baby and ended up dead.

This might remind you of the 1800s Welsh legend of Gelert, the dog who belonged to Llywelyn and was slain defending his son from a wolf.

Or it might remind you of the 1950s Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, in which Tramp narrowly avoids being put down after being falsely accused of harming a baby while, in fact, he was saving it from a rat.

Upon the realization that Guinesfort was innocent, the knight constructed an elaborate shrine to him in the forest, with lots of nice trees and suits of armor, probably.  Again, not really sure what a shrine would look like back then.

How do we know so much about Guinesfort?  For this, you can thank Dominican friar Stephen of Bourbon.  An inquisitor and prolific writer (mostly on medieval heresies), he wrote a treatise in 1260 titled " De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort," in which he describes in ghastly detail how local folks went to the dog as a patron saint of children.  They left children at the shrine, hoping they'd come back to find them healed or at least swapped out with another healthy baby or a suit of armor or something.  Clearly an instance of idol-worship, Stephen the inquisitor had the shrine destroyed, the bones of the dog dug up and burned.  People back then really did not fuck around.  (Credit to Stephen, though: he noted in his writing that the dog's killing was unjust and tragic considering his innocence, usefulness, and nobleness.)

Stephen the inquisitor was one of the nicer, less torture-y ones, so after he destroyed the grave, he told the locals to knock it off with their dog-saint legend and left it at that.  (He considered the locals to merely be confused and described their changeling child rituals as seduced or tricked by the devil; he noted that women with sick children made easy targets.)

For all of his remarkably understanding writing (for an inquisitor), Stephen made a huge mistake: by giving so much undue attention to a local legend, he ensured that people continued to believe in St. Guinefort miracles.  After all, why would the Catholic church go to all the trouble of digging up Guinefort's bones if there wasn't some sort of magic there?

Guinefort's "grave" was actually a well and you can't exactly dig up a well; the well remained and of course the trees regrew.  As recently as the late 1800s there was a rite for sick children called "St. Guinefort's Wood," where tree branches were knotted together to "bind" the child’s ailments. A doctor in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne confirmed the last known instance of this rite in the 1940s.

Despite the church's crusty insistence that St. Guinefort wasn't a saint and anyone who prayed to a dog was basically in a cult, St. Guinefort slipped his way into Catholic folklore.  He shows up in legends of St. Roch, a man who lived in the mid-1300s and worked with plague victims.  He ended up with the plague himself and was driven into the forest to die, but his faithful dog brought him bread until God healed him, and then he went right back to helping plague victims.  He's generally depicted showing us some leg and with his faithful dog, commonly called Guinefort.

 Bottom right corner: a well-bread dog.

St. Roch is the patron saint of dogs and falsely accused people.  You know.  Like Guinefort.

I have always loved the tale of St. Guinefort for obvious reasons.  I love dogs and was raised Catholic and think this is a fascinating bit of history.

Back when I worked at a lab with animal specimens, I had a number of portraits over my desk including a portrait of St. Guinefort and a picture of the monument to research mice.  Just a reminder to myself about the nobility of animal sacrifice.

But recently St. Guinefort came up again under pretty hilarious circumstances and that's what the second half of this post is about.

Lately I've made a fair number of posts about, you know, changing your opinion, opening your mind up to learning, that sort of thing.  I'm willing to consider other viewpoints and, honestly?  Even if they're stupid (like astrology and crystal healing), I think that as long as it's not doing any harm, it's okay.

But woo, boy.  Woo, boy, oh boy.  I've got me a hot one.

In the 2019 LA Pup pack this year there is one member who is interested heavily in what I would call "occult Catholicism."  He was raised Catholic like me but I try not to engage him much because his brand of religion sounds like a video game mixed with a peyote trip.  He seems to believe in a lot of weird stuff.  Not acceptable, talking-snake-giving-a-chick-an-apple weird, but really weird.  Like, blood rituals and secret societies and stuff like that.  Hoodoo, basically.  (I won't get into specifics here as I don't want to give too many personal details, although I will say that he told me his grandmother could bring herself back to life and that he has a suit of armor in the Vatican, both of which strike me as... not very believable.)

Every interaction with this guy.

It's very weird when someone is passionately telling you about their crazy beliefs and you're suddenly in between a rock and a hard place.  Do you play along with their delusion?  Do you try to gently correct them and risk insulting them or hurting their feelings?  Me, I normally change the subject tactfully.

In about 90% of cases, deflection works like a charm.  I've never seen the show Preacher but I think the idea of doing a dog/God mashup is a great way to piss off both human pups and religious folk, who tend to not always get along so good.  I'm not even sure how the idea of dressing up as a "dog god" is mind-blowing, conceptually, because that's like... the premise of the show, which is pretty widely considered to be blasphemous and self-servingly controversial.

Anyway, I felt the legend of St. Guinefort was a pretty innocuous way to reach out to a person who might have their deacon's collar screwed on too tight.  It's vaguely religious in nature but secular enough to be enjoyed by all.  Little did I realize what I was in for. 

Ho-ly shit.

Now's probably a good time to mention that this person not only believes everything he says but he says a lot.  He's a pretty arrogant person who never skips an opportunity to tell everyone about how incredible he is.  (To be fair, I think this is a defense mechanism; he seems to have very low self-worth to me.)  (One time, we stepped out of a festival and I said, "Give me a moment to remember where I parked my car."  To which he pointed out the cardinal directions and told me, at length, how he was a master navigator.  Which was great but utterly useless to me.  "Oh, cool, I knew my car was north-northwest, let's go."  Like, gimme a break.)

And obviously, there's no way he could have studied "all" the saints.  As I mentioned, there's about 10,000.  And Guinefort isn't a saint; he's a heresy.  The church is very anti-Guinefort.

Also, read the room!  This was in a group chat with like 10 queer people.  Exorcisms are one of those practices that I believe is inherently harmful.  When it's not being used as a justification to torture homosexuals and the mentally ill, it's being used in place of actual medical treatment, making it a dangerous exercise.

Historically it's... let's just say problematic.  Not that I believe this guy ever has or ever will perform an exorcism, but his fantasies of being a vampire-hunting, demon-slaying Catholic superhero just slipped from comically awkward to something more sinister.

I decided not to touch the exorcism thing and focus instead on the Guinefort thing.

OH MY GOD.  He still wouldn't admit he was lying out his ass!  Like... I backed slowly away from your craziness and you doubled down on your lie.

Is it really that hard to just say "I've never heard of St. Guinefort?"  Considering the obscurity of the legend, I doubted that anyone knew.  And if he wanted to pretend to know already, a cursory Google search would have shown him that Guinefort's "sainthood" is purely honorary in nature.

As politely as possible I explained that Guinefort was not a saint but still he insisted he not only knew about Guinefort but had "studied" him.  (Again: the Catholic church documents the Guinefort legend as heresy and probably would have thought Guinefort believers themselves needed an exorcism.)

But he insisted that some shadowy "they" had taught him all about Guinefort already, so I said it was great he knew the legend and let it go.

After he starting talking about the occult studies I deflected again, this time with better success.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

I was so totally blown away by the interaction, from the casual mention of exorcisms in a roomful of gays leather daddies, to the insistent that his knowledge of the saints encompassed all ten thousand of them plus a few heresy dogs thrown into the mix.

In any case, it gave me an opportunity to talk here on my blog about Guinefort and his unhinged fella, who might want to possibly call on St. Dymphna to intercede on his behalf.

1 comment:

  1. So… we’re going to agree to disagree slightly and leave it there. I agree on exorcisms being harmful but likely not for the same reason. You were mentioning Santa Muerte or Santa Ría I’m general. You ought to know from your work with scientific study it is quite ironic and impressive that you’d bring a personification of SAINTS to the area in which the work is conducted in order to aid you in you. That sounds a lot like a brujo o Brujería in general, also sounds a lot like Catholicism because Catholicism at the core is overwhelmingly occult in nature. In the Karan the use of sorcery is prohibited as it is in the Old Testament but it’s also further classified as a Science as far as Magick in general. There are many Doctors of the church, many not having a formal theological education but the first microorganism was seen by what is essentially a scientist (but they call it a doctor) of the church
    You can see a lot of these otherwise pretty intelligent people putting a lot of resourcefulness into… Necromancy. I’ll leave it at that. Good stuff.