Discourses on the worship of Saint Guinefort: a dialectical martyrdom of the unofficial history
In 1246, during a winter that historical chronicles would later define as the harshest of the century, the French Dominican inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon was proceeding with his novice Marc of Bloch to the Diocese of Lyon, in the Lord of Villars-en-Dombe’s lands. Years before, the inquisitor had been appointed by the Vatican to intercept and suppress all of the heresies he would have encountered in his path throughout French regions. The mission also entailed the redaction of a catalogue of unofficial worships, amongst which unauthorised saint martyrs – martyrs unrecognised by the Church yet object of spontaneous popular veneration – had a leading role.
Dialogue between Stephen of Bourbon and Marc of Bloch.
- Could you kindly let me know where are we going, Stephen?
- We are almost there, the village you see on that hill hosts the nuns of Neuville.
- And may I ask you what is the reason for our journey there?
- I’d prefer not to talk about it, I’m afraid that your young incendiary spirit would force us to argue.
- Please satisfy my curiosity. I promise I’ll remain rational.
- I heard some stories about a certain Saint Guinefort, worshipped in these fields. We have been sent here to intervene and eradicate the cult.
- Why should we?
- It is very simple. Saint Guinefort was a dog, a greyhound, who lived in a castle in this region. One day the Lord went hunting, leaving the dog to watch his infant. When he came back home, he discovered that something terrible had happened: blood was covering the cradle and dripping from the dog’s teeth. The Lord instantly killed the greyhound with his sword. Only later he found out that the infant was sleeping soundly and that under the crib there was a dead snake, beheaded by Guinefort.
- The dog had been killed by mistake while he was the one who saved the baby?
- Exactly. After Guinefort had been buried outside the castle gates, spontaneous worship developed around its grave. The peasants started taking their children there to venerate the martyr Guinefort, and miraculous recoveries began to take place in the vicinity of its tomb.
- What a wonderful story! But I still don’t understand why we should intervene.
- Marc, you know very well that the Vatican cannot allow the spread of that kind of popular worship. It could call into question its credibility. A dog can’t be considered at the same level as Saint Eustache or Saint Uldarico, even if it died to save an infant. We must control and monitor the situation, with violence where necessary.
- With all due respect, I beg to differ. If we look at the canonical principles to identify sainthood and martyrdom, the two fundamental precepts are a virtuous life and miracles. From what I see, Saint Guinefort’s virtuous life has been precisely the cause of its death, while the pilgrimage of the peasants to the grave clearly proves its miracles.
- Your idealism is very charitable…But our power is based on these sorts of interventions since the beginning of time. Only chaos and confusion would rule without the regulation of certain worship and the abolition of others.
- If the official status is what you really care about, I don’t understand why you couldn’t ask Innocent IV to emanate a Papal bull in order to approve this worship. It seems to me wholesome. And to canonise a non-human martyr would be a sign of openness! Didn’t Dionysius the Areopagite use to say, “omnia quae sunt lumina sunt”, everything that exists is illuminated because everything is equally part of God’s creation?
- This is not the occasion to bother Dionysius the Areopagite. And this degeneration that you are proposing is shameful. We have already accepted female saints and martyrs and tolerated the instrumentalisation of Saint Sebastian as a homosexual icon. Those are already exaggerated signs of openness.
- The control you mention seems to be completely anachronistic! I’m sure that the day will come when history will be filtered only through reliable truths. And beyond Saint Guinefort, all the saints that you have invented and strongly defended in your Tractatus de diversis materiis predicabilibus will fall, one by one.
- The day will also come when historical truths will be subordinate to the ways in which they will be told. Bubbles of meaning will pass through us, teaching us lessons that we will be ready to apply immediately. In that moment, maybe we won’t be able to discern which narratives we should trust anymore.
- But that’s exactly what I’m saying, you are laying the methodological foundations for that day, postulating true falsities and fake falsities.
- Precisely. That’s because when that day comes our only compass to distinguish between true and false will be the authority of the official fake truth compared to the unauthorised one. And always remember, on that day, truth will finally be a moment of falsehood.
Marc of Bloch left Stephen of Bourbon that same night, before he could attend the gathering of all the residents of the region, commanded by the inquisitor. On that day, Stephen of Bourbon dug up Saint Guinefort’s coffin and publicly burnt the dog’s remains and bones. At the end of the purification ceremony, he issued an edict which forbade anyone to approach the grave for any reason. The punishment would have been the confiscation and the sale of all of their properties.
Marc of Bloch set out for Val‑d’Oise, where he built the church Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Gunifort. After a few years he moved to Italy, where he married a peasant and founded the church of San Guiniforte in Nosate and the one of San Guiniforte Martire in Casatisma, both in the Po Valley.
The worship of Saint Guinefort went on clandestinely, resisting crackdown until the 1930s, when it was definitely shut down by the Catholic Church.