“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went” ― Will Rogers
Every once in a while you have to clean up your theology. After a millennium of heavenly ticket sales and sold-out worldwide tours, your more savvy religions find that success comes with its own headaches. As the faith spreads, folks unavoidably get their own ideas and develop localized standards and practices. Pretty soon, if you aren’t minding your laity, you’re awash in distinctive sects and denominations and anarchy reigns. This makes for a very messy monotheism, what with holiness being spread this way and that willy-nilly. So, occasionally you have to crack the whip and bring some of the more questionable trends back into line. And if along the way it becomes necessary to shed a few sanctified personages of dubious provenance, that’s just one of those pesky transactional costs of the beatification business. This is precisely what happened to the unfortunate 13th Century A.D. Saint Guinefort of Lyon, France, that is, he was unsainted, and while his fan club persisted into the 1930’s, his official celestial mojo was revoked, and his veneration prohibited by the Catholic Church. Saint Guinefort’s main problem turned out to be that he was a plucky greyhound.
Now other saints with canine qualities have managed to not only weather, but also thrive despite periodic theological housecleanings. The church seemed willing to overlook the fact that Saint Christopher had a dog’s head and he is as popular today as he was in Byzantium, but religious ideation can only be extended so far, and reverence for an actual dog was regarded as beyond the pale, ignoring the fact that Guinefort had a lot to recommend his saintly credentials i.e. defending the innocent, martyrdom, and a few posthumous miracles. One assumes that his gnawing of bones, profligacy with “the bitches”, and incessant licking of his nether regions simply pushed the ideological limits of sainthood just a tad too far. In all fairness, beginning in the 10th Century A.D., there were a number of unsaintings as the Catholic Church made an effort to stomp out the last vestiges of paganism and promote a more consistent version of civilized behavior, generally looking askance at the worship of beasts.
A process of centralization was however going on, which was somewhat marked toward the end of the tenth century. The dangers to purity of public worship, which first led to the intervention of the bishops, later induced the popes to take a hand in the matter. Unworthy persons had been venerated. Alexander III protested in 1173 against the veneration as a saint, of a man who had been killed while intoxicated, and forbade reverence paid to him, even though miracles had been worked through him. In England, Earl Waltheof (d. 1076) was widely regarded as a martyr, and miracles were said to have been wrought at his tomb. The reason for this veneration was however really due to the antipathy against William the Conqueror, who had put the Earl to death. Even in the thirteenth century, the Dominican Inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon discovered that the peasants of Villeneuve (Doubs) were venerating a certain Saint Guinefort. Upon investigation it was brought to light that this saint was not a man at all, but a poor dog who had been unjustly killed by his master (Severance, 1912, p46).
The story of poor Guinefort is tragic to say the least, perhaps more so than his eventual unsainting. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was an archetypal “good dog”, and established a reputation in death as a saintly protector of children.
In the diocese of Lyons, near the nuns’ town called Villeneuve, on the lands of the lord de Villars, was a certain castle whereof the lord had one little boy by his wife. One day that he and his lady and the nurse had gone forth, leaving the child alone in his cradle, then a vast serpent glided into the house and moved towards the child. The hound, seeing this, followed him in all haste even beneath the cradle, which they overturned in their struggles; for the dog gnawed upon the serpent, which strove to defend itself and bit him in turn; yet at last the dog slew it and cast it far from the child; after which he stood then by the bloody cradle and the bloodstained earth, with his own head and jaws all bloody, for the serpent had dealt roughly with him. Hereupon the nurse came in; and at this sight, believing that the hound had slain and devoured the child, she cried aloud in lamentation; hearing which the mother hastened to the spot, and saw, and believed, and cried likewise. The Knight also came and believed the same; wherefore, drawing his sword, he slew the hound. Then, coming to the child, they found him unhurt and softly sleeping; and seeking further, they found the dead serpent all torn to pieces by the hound’s teeth. Wherefore, recognizing the truth, and grieving that they had so unjustly slain this hound which had done them so great a kindness, they cast him into a well hard by the castle gate, and cast an immense heap of stones over him, and planted trees by the spot as a memorial of his deed. But God so willed that this castle should be destroyed and the land made desert and left without inhabitants. Wherefore the country folk, hearing of that dog’s prowess, and how he had lost his guiltless life for a deed that deserved so great a reward, flocked to that place and honoured the hound as a martyr, praying to him for their sicknesses and necessities (Coulton, 1910, p306-307).
While Medieval Christian theology, despite protestation to the contrary, still tended towards the dark and illogical, there was an incipient rationalism lurking in the background that would eventually usher in the Renaissance. A tilting towards rationalism would not upend every saint based on anomalistic characteristics or consorting with the beasts of the fields, but a hard and fast separation between man and nature was no doubt in the offing. We do think ever so highly of ourselves as a special instance of creation.
Every saint had his invariable attributes, by which he was identified: Saint Denys carried his head in his hands; Saint Christopher, the Christian Hercules, was a colossus, with the Christ-child on his shoulder. Saint Roch was never seen without his dog, nor Saint Anthony without his pig. One animal at least was admitted into the saintly circle, not as a companion, but in his own right: Saint Guinefort, who was a greyhound, and wrought miracles. This blending of heaven and earth, this familiar “communion of the saints,” is one of the chief characteristics of the Middle Ages, and one of the most appealing. Rationalism has barred the gate and destroyed the magic ladder—although a few scientists are now claiming that there still filters a ray of light (Guérard, 1921, p155-156).
Along came Dominican inquisitor Etienne (Stephen) de Bourbon (d. 1261) of the Archdiocese of Lyon, as well as writer, preacher, and historian of Medieval heresies who upon finding that Saint Guinefort was accorded the honors of a saint in the neighborhood of Lyon, declared, “superstitions which attribute divine honors to demons or any other creature insult God” (Stephen de Bourbon, De Supersticione, 13th Century). In essence, this meant that full blown dogs were out of the running. De Bourbon curiously noted that the story of Saint Guinefort was “practically identical with that found in the Occidental Seven Sages” (Kittredge, 1903, p272), and later scholars have similarly pointed out that the folkloric tradition of “the faithful dog” is nearly ubiquitous, with disconcertingly parallel stories appearing in Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit mythological traditions throughout history and across cultures. In short, everybody is convinced that dogs are pretty awesome and frequently have more saintly qualities than humans. The notion is quite ancient, and some scholars have suggested that the peculiar veneration of Saint Guinefort in Lyon is a vestigial representation of much earlier Celtic practices (well on their way to extinction courtesy of the Church in the Middle Ages), as there seems to have been a wide array of rituals and etymological associations that suggest that Iron Age Celtic practices were wrapped up in the sanctification of Guinefort, where even the name “Guinefort” had clear connotations in Gaelic.
A very remarkable instance of the practice of passing a child through a crevice or ‘foramen,’ not between rocks, but between two trunks of trees, will be found in M. Lecoy de la Marche’s ‘Anecdotes’ from Etienne de Bourbon, a Dominican in the thirteenth century. In the diocese of Lyons he records a custom among mothers of carrying their sick children to the grave of a saint called Guinefort, who on enquiry turned out to be no human being at all, but a holy dog, with a history which is a reﬂex of the Bethgellert story. The dog had been buried in a well over which a great cairn had been raised, and trees planted around. A vetula, or hag, assisted at the ceremony, which consisted in handing the naked child nine times backwards and forwards between the trunks, the clothes (panniculi) being hung up on the briars around, and offerings made of salt and other things. Other rites followed, into which we need not enter, it being sufficient to add that the whole account is well worthy of the attention of those who are interested in comparing the superstitions of pagan Europe. With a very slight change indeed the very name Guinefort would signify in Goidelic ‘the dog’s grave’ (Borlase, 1895, p90-91).
Alas, Guinefort was removed from the ranks of the holiest of holy, simply for being a dog, likely in an effort to eradicate anything that even smelled like paganism. No dogs have been sainted since, which is a darn shame, since I’ve met hounds with far more impressive pedigree and upstanding character than I have human beings. Sadly, dogs have never made a comeback on the celestial scene, for as theologian G.K. Chesterton said, “At least five times with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.” Given humanity’s track record, it may be time to start considering a religion where the only saints are dogs.
Coulton, G. G. 1858-1947. A Medieval Garner: Human Documents from the Four Centuries Preceding the Reformation. London: Constable & company, ltd., 1910.
Kittredge, G.L. “Arthur and Golagon”. Harvard University. Dept of Modern Languages. Harvard Studies And Notes In Philology And Literature v8. Cambridge [etc.]: Harvard University Press, 1903.
Borlase, William Copeland, 1848-1899. The Age of the Saints: a Monograph of Early Christianity In Cornwall, With the Legends of the Cornish Saints, And an Introduction Illustrative of the Ethnology of the District. 2d ed. Truro: J. Pollard, 1895.
Guérard, Albert Léon, 1880-1959. French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921.
Severance, Allen Dudley. “Beatification and Canonization with Special Reference to Historic Proof and the Proof of Miracles”. American Society of Church History. Papers of the American Society of Church History 2:3. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912.