Saturday 7 November 2015

Guest blog - Saint Guinefort,The Holy Greyhound

I have the pleasure of introducing a blog written by a colleague of mine Katie Philips who works on the patronage and perceptions of leprosy in thirteenth-century England and France.

In the course of my research into French leper-houses, which were mostly founded during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, I have been surprised by the range of saints to whom these were dedicated.

Probably the most surprising saint, however, was Saint Guinefort. Guinefort was a French greyhound, who was first recorded in the thirteenth century. Having saved a child’s life, a cult developed around Guinefort, and he became recognised as a patron of sick children.

It is unlikely that the dog’s name was actually Guinefort; apparently the word guigner is a patois word in France which can mean ‘to wag’, and fort translates as ‘strongly’, so whatever his real name, he was obviously a very happy hound. The name may also come from the Greek name Christopher – who, confusingly, is sometimes depicted with a dog’s head in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I was particularly curious about the leper-house I had found with the same name, as it was located around 300 miles away from Guinefort’s native town, and I wondered if such a cult would have spread that far, but it appears there was a human Saint Guinefort too. Although not recorded until much later, he is believed to have lived during the fourth century. An Irishman who travelled to Milan, he was persecuted for preaching, and sentenced to execution.

But his executors, instead of beheading him, decided to fill him with arrows so that he ‘resembled a hedgehog’. He didn’t die – he dragged himself to Pavia, where numerous blind persons, invalids and lepers were reputed to have been healed.

This parallels the persecution of Saint Sebastian, and both developed reputations as protectors against the plague, along with Saint Roch and Saint Anthony (who is also associated with ergotism, but that’s another story).

Saint Roch showing off his plague spot
British Library, MS Egerton 2125, f.209v

Evidently the reports of the human Guinefort healing leprosy would have made him an attractive protector and intercessor saint for the poor lepers, and this is probably the reason the name was chosen. A hospital dedication, like a church dedication, would have to be confirmed with a consecration service to a recognised saint, and the dog was unfortunately not officially canonised by the papacy.

But we’d obviously all prefer to believe that Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound was uppermost in the patrons’ minds when they chose the name.


More on Katie:
√Čtienne de Bourbon, De Superstitione, Internet Medieval Source Book, [URL:]

Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound (trans. Martin Thom), (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press) 1983.

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