Tuesday, June 1, 2010

St Guinefort and the Sorceress

A few months ago I watched a movie with some friends based around the medieval French cult of St. Guinefort the greyhound, which was known to last in some form up until 1930!

The legend of the dog saint is that once a snake crawled into the cradle of a nobleman's son. The dog bit the snake and killed it so that it wouldn't kill the baby, and in the process knocked over the cradle and the baby started crying. When the nobleman came in, he saw the cradle tipped-over and empty and the dog with blood on his mouth and thought he had hurt the child. He immediately killed the loyal greyhound, only to then discover the snake and realize his mistake. The dog was buried in an old well in the forest, and peasants started to venerate him as a a saint, conflating the dog with a human Saint of the same name venerated at a monastery somewhere else in France.

Anyway, during the High Middle Ages, the Dominican Etienne de Bourbon came around working for the Inquisition looking for heresy. In the village he found out about St. Guinefort and also found out about a potentially infanticidal ritual associated with the dog-saint. Mothers would go with an medicine-woman and preform rites with the sick baby at the tomb of Guinefort, since they believed the sick baby was a changeling. Then they would leave the child alone on a pile of straw while two candles burned down. They had to walk away from the child so that they could no longer see nor hear it, and then return once the candles had burned out. If the child was still there, it meant the forest creatures had returned the real baby. If the baby died or was burnt up when the candles reached the straw, or was taken away by wolves...well, that meant the baby was a changeling and that God didn't mean the mother to ever the "real" baby back.

The movie I watched based on this story is a 1987 French film known as Le Moine et la Sorciere, marketed with English sub-titles as The Sorceress.

I would recommend the film if only because the director, Suzanne Schiffman, scrupulously researched every aspect of the medieval world when it came to costuming, set, and props. It is certainly a grittier vision of the Middle Ages than the romanticized technicolor fantasy world of flowing banners and majestic ramparts depicted in films from the 1960's like Becket (as wonderful a movie as that is).

This movie is very realistic in that regard and spares no detail; the peasants' farms are essentially just dirt plots with sticks and twine, even the church is rather small and earthy and spartan, the priest has a live-in housekeeper who (it is implied) does more than housekeeping. At one point they celebrate a harvest festival wherein they all throw nightcrawlers at an ancient but obviously amateurly-crafted statue of a Saint after a procession which is basically just a few dozen peasants walking from the church to the fields with the statue. This was not at all like the baroque urban processions some people like to imagine; this was rustic to to the core.

Spoilers ahead. The film takes the account of Etienne de Bourbon and portrays it from the angle of watching him as he investigates the village and interrogates the villagers. The local pastor, an older man, tries to persuade him that, while there may be some harmless superstition here or there, there is no heresy or witchcraft or anything grave, and the friar is initially inclined to agree, underwhelmed by the mundane confessions of the frightened villagers.

However, he finds out about and soon grows suspicious of the local medicine-woman who lives in the forest alone after arriving mysteriously in the village as a girl. He becomes convinced that her medicine is more than just natural, while it is implied to the audience that his fear of her stems from his own lust for her. The tension and banter between the two of them is explored, while in the meantime, there is a subplot about the local lord oppressing the villagers by flooding fields for a fishpond; the villagers try to subvert him by damming up the water. One even gets arrested and sentenced to starvation (he is put in a tower and breastfed by his visiting wife until he manages to escape at the end).

Finally, Etienne comes across the ritual with the sick baby. He is appalled, denounces the woman for witchcraft, and she is locked up. He also stirs the peasants up into a mob, torches and all, and they destroy the site of St. Guinefort's tomb. He visits the medicine-woman in prison where she explains (portrayed in a light sympathetic to the audience) that she treats the babies with medicine but needs to distract the women to give enough time for the herbs to work. She claims to have taken all precautions to make sure there is never really any danger to the baby. She also explains how, by preforming the ritual, the feeling of responsibility is removed from the mother if the baby does not, in fact, get better, because then the mother can be convinced that it was the fault of demons instead of blaming herself over it.

Etienne is at first uncompromising and unconvinced. However, a visitor arrives from the estate of Etienne's father, the duke of Bourbon, with news that his father has died (Etienne stands by his vow of poverty and says that means the estate now belongs to the Dominicans), and also with a young girl. It is revealed that Etienne once raped a peasant girl who tripped and was knocked unconscious in the woods, while Etienne was out hunting with his bullying father. The girl died in childbirth, Etienne felt guilty and entered the Dominicans to atone for his sin, and this girl is his daughter. He is again overcome with guilt and self-doubt, and it falls on the local pastor, more wise towards human frailty, to comfort Etienne and tell him that what he really needs to do is get the medicine-woman released because his anger towards her was really anger towards his own lust.

Etienne agrees. However, the local lord says she is in his hands now, and he wants to kill her. The local pastor then gives Etienne a stone from the floor of the Church, which Etienne then presents to the lord as "a relic of one of the stones from the stoning of Saint Stephen" for the burial chapel the lord is building. He agrees, in exchange, to release the medicine woman, who agrees also to take Etienne's daughter on as her apprentice, and Etienne goes off humbled and less rigid, suggesting merely that a shrine to the human St. Guinefort be built at the original site of the dog's tomb "with a picture of a greyhound at his feet."

Of course, none of that ever happened to Etienne of Bourbon, as far as we know, so the rape thing could be taken as a little bit slanderous. But I don't think the character in the movie is really to be taken as an accurate depiction of the historical character (the effort of realism put into the environment notwithstanding). Also, evidence suggests that the rituals surrounding the greyhound lasted into the 19th-century, when the village was investigated by anthropologists, and even as late as 1930 an annual celebration occurred. Either way, though, the characterizations were nuanced and advanced the plot, and the story ultimately had a great message about hot-headed zeal vs. pastoral leniency due to human frailty.


Anonymous said...


That is a post I wrote on St. Guinefort some months back, based on the most comprehensive scholarly books on the subject. I have heard of the movie, but didn't see it on Netflix. Will have to look for it somewhere else.

Agostino Taumaturgo said...

I saw this movie ten years ago, then forgot about it until seeing this post.

It was originally suggested (the forcefully shoved into my hands) by a Neopagan girl I knew back then, so at first it was easy for me to assume it would be a bunch of "Burning Times" propaganda, and put the tape into the VCR with a degree of skepticism. I was pleasantly surprised to see that such was not the case. I don't remember the film well enough to critique it point-by-point, but I do vaguely remember that the director's research into the period and attempt at period-accuracy did show through.

I think I might go watch it again if I can find it, so as to jog my memory a little.