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Discourses on the worship of Saint Guinefort: a dialectical martyrdom of the unofficial history
Bernardo Follini

Pro­logue

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.

Epi­logue

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.