Saint Guinefort

Saint Guinefort the Greyhound
Martyr to Love and Loyalty

Saint Guinefort is not recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic or any other church, and it is not the purpose of this page to argue for or against the possibility of animals as saints.   The purpose of this page is to give its readers cause to re-examine some of our basic concepts about animals and their place in God's creation.

In her book Bones Would Rain From the Sky, Suzanne Clothier, a lifelong dog lover, tells the story of having a childhood crisis in faith when she invited a coonhound to attend Sunday School with her, only to be told by her teacher that animals had no place in the church.   If you sympathize with the young Ms Clothier, your sympathies have a sufficiency of scriptural and historical foundations.   We are taught that God created the world and all that is in it, and saw that it was good.   Western tradition tells us that the dog, among the vast array of "All Creatures Great and Small", is man's best friend.   For those readers who have heard the astonishing range of vocalizations produced by the average coonhound, it is more than apparent that it certainly has quite a legitimate "...Place in the Choir."

Examples of animals being in touch with the divine abound in Christian literature, both in the Bible itself and in the stories of the lives of Christian saints.   There are the lion and the lamb who will lay down together when the peace of God is established on Earth, the ravens who brought food to the Prophet Elijah, and the host of domestic animals who attended the Nativity in adoration and stood guard over the Christ Child.   From the early centuries of the Christian church come stories of the wolf who led St Anthony into the presence of Paul the Hermit, the crow who brought them bread for their meal, and the two lions who dug Paul's grave.   There is the lion who purportedly requested baptism at the hands of St Paul, and the lioness who refused to martyr Ste Thecla.   From the 14th century comes the tale of the dog who stole food from his master's table in order to feed St Roch, then stricken with plague and starving in the forest.

It does not matter that many of these examples come to us from hagiography and may well be more the stuff of legend than of history.   The fact remains that these stories are illustrative of the attitudes espoused by the early fathers of the church towards animals and their place in God's creation.   This attitude can be seen to change throughout history as the church tended increasingly towards temporal power.   Animal interlocutors between mankind and the Divine were outside of the paradigm Rome sought to establish — that of the church as the sole source of salvation and the Pope as an earthly autocrat.   Animal interlocutors fell from Vatican favour and remain in this subservient state within Protestantism.   But while the possible sanctity of animals was dismissed, the possibility of their holding heretical views was held strongly.   This seems odd — either the animal is capable of comprehending the Gospel, or not.   If it is not so capable, then how can a charge of heresy be brought? If it is so capable, then why cannot the status of martyr or saint be conferred?

The Roman church had no wish to have animal interlocutors usurping the position of the Papacy and its priesthood. Any manifestation of saintliness beyond that approved by the church was swept aside as heresy.   As a case in point, there is the well-documented history of poor Guinefort, the thirteenth century hero-martyr-saint greyhound of Dombes in south central France.

The tale comes to us from near Villeneuve.   As it is told, Guinefort, a greyhound, the highly prized and trusted companion of a tenant knight holding lands in fief from the Sieur de Villars-en-Dombe, was left to guard the knight's heir, still a babe in the cradle.   In the noble's absence a snake came into the room to attack the child but was bloodily dispatched by the loyal hound.   When the noble returned to find the room and the hound covered in blood and Guinefort seated beside the cradle he leapt to the wrong conclusion and slew the hound out of hand.   On discovering the dead snake and the live child, the knight realized his tragic error.   In remorse he buried the dog in a well and planted a grove above the hero's grave.   When the knight's castle was subsequently destroyed, this was taken to be an act of divine retribution for the slaying of the hound.   When the tale was retold in the region the slain hero became a martyr, and the martyr became a saint.   Parents prayed and left offerings at Guinefort's grave on behalf of sickly children.   But the hound's "sainthood" had been improperly conferred by ignorant villagers and, worse, the church was receiving no revenues from the pilgrims at Guinefort's shrine.   Guinefort's cult was discovered by the inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon during a sweep through the region around Dombes, and it was promptly suppressed by the Holy Inquisition.

Was Guinefort a saint?   Was he a heretic, martyred for his divergence from the true Christian faith?   The answer to both questions must be "No".   Allowing the essential truth of the original tale, what Guinefort did was to do his duty to his master, showing his unconditional love by risking his life for the protection of the sleeping child.   He did this out of love and loyalty, not out of faith in Christ, but the fact remains that his actions are not substantially different from those of the virtuous pagans described in Dante's Inferno — beings who did not know God but who by strength of character did not trespass on God's commandments.   Guinefort followed, albeit unknowingly, Christ's dictum that greater love hath no man (or, in this case, greater love hath no dog) than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) Guinefort risked his life to battle the snake, and to save the child.   An instinctual response, you might say. Perhaps, but how much better a world it would be if that sort of instinct were as common among people as it seems to be among dogs.

Granted this doesn't answer the essential question: "Can a dog be a saint?"   As an intermediate step in dealing with such a question it might be helpful to ask if a dog can comprehend the Divine?   Perhaps an even better question might be "Can mankind comprehend the Divine?"   For within mankind there are grave differences of opinion concerning the form, nature and will of the Divine.   Many of these differences of opinion have led to ghastly wars between competing religions, or between competing sects of the same religion.   With this sorry history in mind, one must justly consider whether mankind is capable of comprehending the Divine.   Possibly we are, but in all probability most of us manage no better than the average dog might.   So if dogs think about such things, what might their opinion be? Most important of all, what is God's opinion on this matter?   That is a question to which no person can honestly provide the definitive answer.

Perhaps the dog's lack of comprehension of the Divine is the fault of mankind.   St Mark relates in his Gospel that Christ enjoined his disciples Go ye into all the world and preach to every creature.   He that believeth in me and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.   Note that the word used is "creature", not "man", or even "human".   This choice of word may be a problem of translation, but some of the luminaries of the church didn't believe it to be.   St Francis of Assisi famously preached to the birds and was neither the first nor the last to do so.   St Anthony of Padua preached to the fishes in the sea.   So, do we do as Christ enjoined us? We do not &mdash at least not many of us.   We are so concerned with getting man's best friend to perform tricks that we don't bother with more difficult concepts of which we ourselves possess only a tenuous grasp.

As a point of argument, let us for the moment agree that a dog cannot comprehend the Divine.   But if a dog cannot do that, and as a result cannot be a saint, how then can he become a heretic?   Surely a dog, if unable to comprehend the Divine, and unable to preach against or espouse divergence from church dogma, must be innocent of any charge of heresy.   The Holy Inquisition seems to have missed this obvious point.   Guinefort, the hero greyhound, was declared heretic by the church, which then caused the bones of the poor animal to be burned and the shady grove planted over his tomb laid waste.   Clearly, it does not pay to be man's best friend. The sentiments of the common people differed from those of the Inquisition.   Though Guinefort's shrine was desecrated in the 13th century, there are credible reports of desperate mothers offering prayers to the saintly (if not sainted) hound as late as the 1940s.

Was Guinefort a martyr to the faith?   Not in the common view of the church, and rightly so, for if a dog cannot comprehend the Divine he can have no faith in it.   But Guinefort was a martyr to love for and faith in his master.   Dogs seem to hold humankind in high esteem — unaccountably so, given our history.   By and large they demonstrate unconditional love and trust — faith — in us as a race.   We could do well to love and trust our Lord and Saviour with the same devotion that many dogs manage to demonstrate for their masters.   If a dog can demonstrate so great a faith in a being so fallible as a human, surely we can do at least as well in evincing faith in God Almighty — for as Luther taught, we are justified by faith alone.   If Guinefort is not a saint per se, his love and loyalty give him a nobility of spirit that seems more than enough to make him canis dominis — God's dog — if such an honorific existed.   If, as we are assured by the popular movie, "all dogs go to Heaven", Guinefort would make a fine companion and watchdog for Saint Peter.

"Every dog has his day" and Guinefort's great day was his last.   He risked his own life to save the life of a child, and was then done to death in tragic error.   In the traditions of Guinefort's home region August 22nd is the day set aside to honour the canine saint.   Guinefort's saint's day is appropriately situated within the dog days of summer, the period when Sirius, the Dog Star, faithfully trailing his master Orion through the sky, rises in conjunction with Sol.   On this day it is perhaps appropriate that we give thanks to God for the love and joy which our household pets bring to our lives all year long.   In thinking about who or what might have a firmer idea of the nature of of the Divine, or who might demonstrate greater faith, perhaps it is best to keep in mind the bumper sticker prayer:     "O Lord, make me the kind of person my dog thinks I am."

Postscript   The story of the man who killed his dog in error is one of the oldest and most reiterated stories of mankind.   Perhaps it is the same story retold in time and space, or maybe it is the same sad tale too often repeated in fact.   The story gave rise to the proverb "To repent as bitterly as the man who killed his dog in haste" and is perhaps the original of "Act in haste, repent at leisure".   According to Joseph Jacobs Celtic Fairy Tales the earliest version of the tale, thought to have originated in India, comes from ancient China and made its way in sundry variations back through India, to the Levant, to Hellenistic Greece, to Virgil's Rome, and on to medieval Europe.   It reappears in England and then in Wales as Beth Galert, or the Grave of the Greyhound, a poem written in 1800 by W. R. Spencer, relating the "legend" of Gellert, Prince Llewellyn's great and loyal hound.   Most recently (I believe) it has reappeared in North America as the story of the unnamed and unfortunate hound in the bluegrass song Echo Mountain (written by Billy Smith and Mac Elliott, music by James King).   It is an ancient and timeless tale which continues to resonate with us today.

This page
Published by Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church
Copyright © Kurt Hansen 2006
Established 12 April 2006 and last amended 07 November 2006