The Long Read: Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound

by Dr Rebecca Rist

St Guinefort via Pinterest

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 Sorcre), 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:

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GUEST POST: Tale as Old as Time

by Tom Rusbridge, University of Birmingham


The two modern films’ adaptations of the characters on a 2017 Beauty and the Beast 2-Movie Collection (accessed 8th January 2018).

Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was released in Spring 2017 and made its little-screen debut over Christmas. Following on from the animated feature classic of 1991, the fantastical nature of the film’s object-based cast should be interesting to historians as characters such as Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts readily lend themselves to a long history of human relationships with objects and their agency; a significant and widely contested debate among historians, archaeologists, sociologists and anthropologists alike working on material culture.



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Votes for Women: What are we celebrating?

Votes 100, 3 - banner image

by Melanie Khuddro

This week marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act receiving Royal Assent; the week when women were first legally recognised to have voting rights in the UK. Countless flags, banners and badges adorned in green, white and purple have emerged at the many events and campaigns launched in celebration of the success of the suffrage movement. Inevitably, social media has monopolised the conversation with a stream of reminders that people in history fought hard to give women the political status they enjoy today, and stressing why it is important that women exercise their vote. Continue reading

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REGISTRATION OPEN for the ”Social Listening’ Workshop’

Social Media by AbrahamID

‘Social Listening’ Workshop: building qualitative skills in social media research

10am – 4pm, Saturday 24 February 2018

Palmer 101, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading

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Posted in Dina Rezk, 'Social Listening' in the Past, Present and Future, Events, Intellectual History, International History | Tagged , , , , ,

25th December 1914: Christmas Day on board HMS Talbot

by Dr Ruth Salter [1]

Great-grandad in uniform 1

My great-grandfather, Arthur John Pidgeon

I know that it’s not 25th of December today, but what could be more fitting for the final blog post of the series, and for the final entry taken from my great-grandfather, Arthur John Pidgeon’s W/T Signal Log than his Christmas Day’s log?

If you’ve missed the other two blog posts with extracts from Arthur’s Log, see the first entry, and the second entry.




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