During the four years we spent in Rome (August 2007 – July 2011) I ended each post with the name of the Saint who was being commemorated by Big Ben and the boys across the Tiber. On Tuesday past my friend Richard mentioned that it was the day of a Saint who’s name I found lacking on any of my postings for August 22: Saint Guinefort. It appears the only Saint I ever honour on that day was Santa Maria Regina. And a check for a Saint Guinefort turned up nothing – but foolish me I was using a list of “recognized Saints” and for some reason Guinefort had never received the official approval of Holy Mother Church.
Why you might ask? While I found his actions saintly in the extreme – particularly when compared with a few of the more recent hastily canonized lot – the gang across the Tiber did not agree. It appears they had a problem with Guinefort. The only problem I can see is that he was … well… a dog. No I don’t mean his character was cadish or bad, I mean he was a dog – Canis lupus familiaris – your average household hound!
According to the Golden Legend during a time when the Black Death was stalking the cities and towns in the North of the Italian peninsula St Roch tended to the sick and the dying. While in the town of Piacenza he fell ill of the pestilence and was driven into the wilderness by the local authorities. When all others had forsaken him his faithful dog Guinefort brought him food every day until he recovered. The dog, a splendid greyhound, followed Roch when he returned to his hometown of Montpellier. Upon the death of the Saint the hound found his way into the household of a noble family near Neuville in the Dombes region.
Shortly thereafter the Dame of the house was delivered of a beautiful baby boy who was much treasured by his dotting parents. Guinefort proved as devoted to the newborn as he had been to his beloved Saint and guarded the boy faithfully.
One day the Lord was called to the village on business and his lady went with him to distribute alms amongst the poor. The baby was left under the care of the wet nurse and the watchful eye of Guinefort. The nurse fell asleep but was awakened by a dreadful noise – to her horror the cradle was overturned, the infant missing, and Guinefort and the room were smeared with blood. The horrified woman began screaming that the dog had devoured the child. The returning Lord and Lady were greeted first by the wailing Nurse then by an unimaginable scene: an upended empty cradle, walls and floor spattered with gore, and a howling hound blood dripping from his jaws. Believing that indeed Guinefort had eaten his only child the good man drew his sword and slew the hound. As the dog gave his dying yelp it was answered by an infant yowl. There under the cradle was the crying baby and beside it the mangled and bloody body of a viper. The slain dog’s body showed signs of many bites from the struggle proving that he had been protective of his small charge to the very end.
The remorseful Lord took the body of his faithful hound and placed it in a well, filled the well with stones and planted a grove of trees around it as a shrine to Guinefort.
The local peasants, upon hearing of Guinefort’s bravery from others in the manor, began to visit the site and lay small tokens of their admiration. Eventually they began to pray to Guinefort to intercede for their own children when they were sick or in danger. Many rituals – some held over from earlier pagan times – would take place at Guinefort’s impromptu shrine.
Stephen of Bourbon, a Dominican preacher, passed through the area in the mid-13th century and observed the rituals around the veneration of Saint Guinefort. The holy brothers of the Order of Preachers were never known to honour or tolerate anything that strayed from the orthodoxy of Rome and Stephen was no exception. He saw the work of the Devil in the local tradition and is said to have had Guinefort’s body disinterred and burned, the well destroyed and the trees chopped down. Edicts declared that anyone invoking the aid of the “dog” would have all their worldly goods sold.
Other attempts were made to wipe out devotion to Guinefort when Protestant reformers held the veneration of a “dog” up as an example of the corruption and errors of the Church of Rome. The Vatican was quick to agree and again attempted to quash any practices that would give the other side ammunition.
But folk traditions are not so easily wiped out and traces of the cult could be found right up until the late 1930s. The faithful of the region had fashioned a Saint and created rituals which served their immediate needs and fears. Infant death was a very real threat well into the mid-twentieth century and if praying for the intercession of a faithful hound would restore a child to health then neither the censure of Rome nor the ridicule of heretics could destroy faith in that Saint.
Myself I think I would trust more in a faithful dog having the ear of God than many of the humans who have been canonized over the last two thousand years.
On this day in 1537: The Honourable Artillery Company, the oldest surviving regiment in the British Army, and the second most senior, is formed.