In April 1988 the New York Times published a review of Suzanne Schiffman and Paméla Berger’s film Sorceress (French version Le Moine et la Sorcière), which debuted at the 68th Street Playhouse. It described it as ‘a parable about the clash between a dedicated healer and a dedicated pursuer of heretics, over whether God prefers to tend man’s body or scourge his soul’. The film tells the story of a thirteenth-century Dominican who, deployed to seek out heretics, arrives in a small French village where he discovers a mysterious lady who performs healing rites. Although it received mixed reviews, the psychological exploration of trauma, secrecy, control and oppression, feminist ideas of patriarchy, childbirth and sexual violence, and moral themes of pride, lust, corruption, spiritual blindness, celibacy, virginity, and forgiveness, make it intriguing watching.
As a medievalist I was delighted to discover that the film was not only based on an original manuscript, like the famous film Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982), but a retelling of the medieval legend of St Guinefort, the Holy Greyhound. Throughout its two thousand year history, Christianity has honoured animals as part of God’s creation. In hagiographies they are the friends of saints with whom they are depicted: John the Baptist and St Agnes with a lamb, St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Roch with dogs, St Antony of Egypt with a wolf; St Eustace with a stag. Saints care for animals: St Anthony pigs, St Bridgid cows, St Cuthbert eider ducks, St Jerome a lion. St Antony of Padua preached to the fishes, St Francis of Assisi to the birds. Animals are divine symbols: Jesus is the Lamb of God, the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the lion represents courage, the dog loyalty.
St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds via Pinterest
Yet although animals were often associated with popular saints’ cults, the medieval Church did not approve of the veneration of animals. Circa 1261 the inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon visited an area of south-eastern France known as the Dombes, and there found that women were venerating a St Guinefort as a healer of children. He was extremely pleased, until he discovered that St Guinefort was not a holy man, but a greyhound.
According to Stephen’s account recorded in his book On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, this greyhound had saved the life of the baby of the lord of the castle who was attacked by a snake, but the lord, mistakenly believing the hound had tried to harm his child, killed it in anger. Subsequently, having discovered the baby safe and the serpent dead, he deeply regretted his actions. A cult grew up where the hound was buried and women brought their sick children to the site. It is likely the dog’s name was derived from a certain Saint Guinefort who had died a martyr at Pavia where his cult was established and spread to France. We know that stories of a dog saving a baby’s life are found in many places and periods from the ancient to the modern: Pausanias in the second century AD; the thirteenth-century Welsh story of the faithful Gelert; the fourteenth-century The Seven Sages of Rome, a popular collection of moral stories or exempla; the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp (1955).
A modern retelling of St Guinefort via Pinterest
Stephen visited the cult’s location where he disinterred and burnt the greyhound’s remains. The Church’s disapproval of animal saints was philosophical and stemmed back to Ancient and Patristic ideas, developed by St Thomas Aquinas, Stephen’s contemporary, that since they were not rational beings with the capacity to make moral choices, they could not actively choose good over evil.
This was not the only reason for Stephen’s dismay. Something more sinister appeared to be afoot: