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Medieval Saints: From the Weird to the Absurd

The following is an extract from my upcoming book 'Saints and Sinners: A New History of the Middle Ages Through Saints and their Stories' to be released in June 2024 with Pen & Sword Publishing.

More often than not, medieval historians undertaking research on religion have taken a very rational understanding of saints as prominent figures of worship within society. By no means is this an overstatement as people of all walks of life took saints very seriously, but as we have seen from Guibert of Nogent there is a tendency for the mystical to infiltrate the logical. Whilst we have previously examined the theological mind of Augustine, the reforming genius of Gregory the Great, and the self-sacrifice of Edmund the Martyr in former chapters, we should divert our attention briefly to the weird, whacky, and downright absurd saints that emerged along with the golden age boom of monasticism.

Detailed in the Acts of Peter is a story of a time when the Apostle travelled to Rome to contest the heretic Simon Magus. Whilst there, Peter saw a dog chained up nearby and upon loosening the tight grip of the chain, the dog appeared to speak with a human voice. He ran to Simon’s house and said:

“I tell you Simon, Peter the servant of Christ is standing by the door, and he says to you ‘Come out to confront me, for it is on your account I have come to Rome, you most wicked deceiver of simple souls!”

Simon was astonished at the bizarre animal before him, bargained with the dog and begged him not to tell Peter of his whereabouts. The dog, however, scorned him as a cheat and deceiver before running back to Peter to tell him where he could find the heretical magician. The dog proceeded to tell Peter that if he were successful in his contest against Simon that many who were previously deceived would convert to the Christian faith. After doing so, the dog lay at Peter’s feet and died.

This rather strange but remarkable story of the talking dog is perhaps one of the first and earliest stories to involve a dog taking an active part in promoting the faith. Whilst this may seem like an absurd statement, we turn to the 13th century where we find an explosion of bestial saints who were regarded with a zeal for Christianity.

The legend of Saint Guinefort is one of the more infamous tales of a non-human saint that emerged as a by-product of the monastic epoch. He was a greyhound, specifically a hunting dog, that was said to have lived in mid-13th-century France. The story, as written in the De Adoratione Guinefortis Canis, tells of a night when Guinefort, a trusted family member, was left to guard a seigneurial infant. Upon checking on his son later that night, the noble gasped at the violent scene before him - the room was trashed, blood was smeared on the floor, and Guineforts stood, bloodstained, by the crib of what appeared to be the recently deceased child. Immediately, the man drew his bow and shot the dog with deep-seated resentment. As he did so, however, the child cried out, unharmed, in the crib. If so, whose blood was this smeared and splattered across the room? Upon closer examination of the crib and child, the noble noticed the body of a dead serpent below the bed which could only have been that of Satan. In grief and sorrow, the noble realised that Guinefort was a saviour and hero instead of a murderer. The father, with guilt, buried the body of the dog in a well and planted a grove around him to venerate and honour the heroic greyhound. Local peasants and pilgrims quickly grew attached to the story of the dog and serpent, even making their way to the grave to worship the apparent martyr.

This folkish tale of the dog-saint, however, quickly reached international ears and even that of the papacy. Almost immediately a papal inquisitor, Etienne de Bourbon, was sent to investigate the bestial martyr and determine his validity. He wrote:

This recently happened in the diocese of Lyons where, when I preached against the reading of oracles, and was hearing confession, numerous women confessed that they had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. As I thought that this was some holy person, I continued with my enquiry and finally learned this was actually a greyhound, which had been killed in the following manner ….

The peasants, hearing of the dog’s conduct and how it had been killed, although innocent, and for a deed which it might have expected praise, visited the place, honoured the god as a martyr, and prayed to it when they were sick or in need of something.”

Etienne, however, was more than displeased at this heretical practice as the worship of bestial icons was symbolic of Celtic, pagan, and other pre-christian cultural and religious practices. As such, he cut down the grove and burned it along with the remains of the trusty canine companion. The saint was deemed heretical and his ‘sainthood’ was removed. Despite these best efforts, the cult of Guinefort endured and thrived as people continued to venerate the saint all the way until 1940. In fact, despite six centuries of attempted suppression, in 1879 an antiquary travelled to the region and wood of the saint where locals continued to uphold the story and veneration. Likewise in the 1970s, Jean Claude Schmitt investigated the cult and found some elderly inhabitants who remembered the legend and had visited the saint for the protection of their children. Schmitt also discovered that Christian martyrology had contained a human Guinefort who had been a missionary that had been martyred in Padua during the Middle Ages. With the rise of the canine folk tale, however, he passed into legend. Yet, this shows the ever-present battle in the medieval era between the mainstream theological and theoretical faith promoted by the Church and the physical local vernacular religion that was a concoction of pagan beliefs and weird ritual rites.

Another infamous (but rather dubious) story is that of Gelert, a wolfhound beloved by Prince Llewyln. According to the folklore myth in Beddgelert propagated by an innkeeper in the 18th century, Gelert was a wolfhound who, like Guinefort, was unjustly killed in the 13th century by his owner Prince Llywelyn the Great when he was discovered at the foot of the Llywelyn’s son’s bed. The prince killed the dog with a swift strike of his sword but then realised the dog was a brave hero who protected the heir:

“Hell-hound! My child by thee devour’d!

The Frantic father cried;

And to the hilt his vengeful sword

He plung’d in Gelert’s side.

Ah, what was then Llewelyn’s pain!

For now the truth was clear:

His gallant hound the wolf had slain

To save Llewelyn’s heir.”

He carried the body of the hound down to the river and buried him. After this tragic incident, Gelert would emerge as a popular Welsh saint. What is particularly odd about the story and nature of Guinefort and Gelert is that they were not anomalies. Stories across the continent from Switzerland to Austria tell of heroic pets protecting their families in such way. In a Russian version of the story, Czar Piras played the role of Llewelyn. In a German version of the story, an angered knight beats his trusty dog to death and later disembowels himself upon discovering the snake. In the Gesta Romanorum, a 14th century collection of moralistic anecdotes, a knight called Folliculus goes to a tournament, leaving his son to be guarded by a falcon and a greyhound. Upon the snakes arrival, the falcon flaps with alarm to awake the dog who then kills it. Alerted by his wife, Folliculus returns to kill the faithful dog in bitter rage. Seeing his folly, he retires his sword, breaks his lance into pieces, and embarks on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Whilst Gelert was, however, a modern invention, how is it that the 13th century contained so many dog-saints who were martyred in an almost identical way? One prominent theory is that these two stories are built on a widespread medieval legend from India. Written in 540, the Sanskrit Pantschatantra details a story whereby a Brahmin named Devasaman had a wife, a son, and a pet mongoose. One day whilst the wife was collecting water she asked the husband to look after their child. The Brahmin, however, went out begging and left the house deserted. Whilst away, a black snake slithered in and attempted to bite the child before the mongoose tore it to pieces. Yet, when returning home, the scene the parents saw was a bloodstained mongoose by the crib of their child. The wife believed the mongoose had injured the baby and clubbed it to death with a water-jar. Only then did she realise her mistake and mourned the brave mongoose (whilst also berating her husband for leaving his house unattended).

The story of the mongoose and the snake quickly spread through the cultural world, twisting and changing as the mongoose transformed and evolved into a cat, falcon, lion, and finally dog. The ‘good vs bad’ meaning behind the story took on a religious connotation and the fate of the dog’s master varied widely from succumbing to madness to committing suicide. In the Welsh tale, it is said that Llewelyn never smiled again. Nevertheless, the moral of the tale remained; that rash wrath can have disastrous consequences, and due to this moral depth and popularity, the cult of Guinefort and other ‘Martyred Dogs’ could never be extinguished by the Papacy.

Yet, there is also something to be said on why dogs prevailed as the hero over lions, falcons, and the trusty mongoose. Since the beginning of time, dogs have been close companions to humans. In Celtic societies, for example, various myths and legends celebrated dogs who accompanied gods. The infamous warrior Cú Chulainn literally translates to The Hound of Ulster. Elsewhere in the world dogs were equally as central to mythology. The pillar of the known world, Rome, was regarded as being founded by Romulus and Remus who both were nurtured by a wolf. And in various mythologies from Greece to Norway did dogs like Garmr, Fenrir, and Cerberus guard the gates to hell. Even in Aztec, Hinduism, Buddhism, and China did dogs play a central role as a recurring theme - most commonly to guard departed souls. In the Physiologus, a primary source for medieval bestiaries, dogs are praised for “having more understanding than any other beast” and for knowing their name and loving their master.

Dogs are like preachers who by warnings and by righteous living turn aside the ambushes of the Devil [...] As the dog’s tongue heals wounds by licking, so the wounds of sin are cleansed by the instruction of the priest when they are laid bare in confession.”

As such, dogs and saints appear to be synonymous within Christianity for the values they upheld in society - if not for the pagan aspect of worshipping animals. Yet, this did not stop the rise of a stranger saint that was an amalgamation of beast and human.

St. Christopher lived on the fringes of North Africa in what was the boundaries of the known world in the early 4th century. To Pliny, however, these borders were seen as being home to cannibals, sciapods, cyclops, hermaphrodites, dog-headed humanoid beasts, and other contorted and disfigured mythological creatures. Sources are scarce on the saint as his cult did not become popular until a millennia after his martyrdom but our most detailed source is that of the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. Here he, and other contemporaries, refer to Christopher as Reprobus, meaning ‘wicked’, who then became Christopher after baptism, yet this concoction is more moralistic than factual and so the real name of the saint is most definitely lost to the ages. Nevertheless, the story goes that Reprobus hailed from the ancient land of Canaan and stood at an impressive height of over seven feet tall, or according to some accounts, a staggering twelve feet tall.

Whilst in the king's service, Reprobus noticed that every time a jester mentioned the devil, the king would make the sign of the cross, a gesture of protection against evil. This led Reprobus to believe that the devil must be even more powerful than the king himself. Driven by curiosity and a desire to serve the most formidable master, he set out on a quest to find the devil. During his journey, he encountered a group of soldiers, among whom one stood out as particularly terrifying. When this fearsome man asked Reprobus what he sought, the giant replied, "I seek to serve the devil as my master." Seizing the opportunity, the soldier claimed to be the devil, and Reprobus willingly became his servant. As they traveled together, they approached a wayside cross on the road. Strangely, the demon, who claimed to be the devil, was overcome with terror and took a significant detour to avoid it. Perplexed by this reaction, Reprobus questioned the demon about the reason for his fear. The demon then revealed the truth to him, speaking of Christ and how the sign of the cross filled him with dread. Intrigued by this newfound knowledge, Reprobus decided to seek out Christ for himself. After a long search, he encountered a wise hermit who taught him about the Christian faith. The hermit suggested various acts of self-discipline and prayers to deepen his connection to this newfound belief, but the giant rejected them all. Eventually, they reached an agreement. Reprobus would take up residence by a treacherous river, where many travellers met their end attempting to cross its dangerous waters. Armed with a sturdy pole and his immense strength, he would dedicate himself to guiding these wayfarers safely across the river, thus serving Christ in his own unique way.

One fateful day, whilst inside his dwelling, he heard a child's voice calling out to him. The child asked Christopher to carry him across the river on his shoulders. Without hesitation, Christopher obliged and placed the boy on his back. However, as they ventured into the river, the child's weight inexplicably grew to an overwhelming heaviness, nearly pushing Christopher beneath the water's surface. It took all of his strength and determination to reach the other side. Baffled and exhausted, Christopher confronted the child, expressing his surprise at the seemingly immeasurable burden he had carried. In response, the child revealed himself as Christ, the king whom Christopher served. Christ explained that the weight Christopher felt was not just that of the child but also the weight of the entire world and its Creator. To offer proof of his divine identity, the child instructed Christopher to plant his staff in the ground outside his hut. If he truly served Christ, the staff would sprout leaves and bear fruit like a palm tree - which it then did.

Inspired and emboldened by this encounter, Christopher journeyed to the city of Samos in Lycia, where Christians faced persecution. There, he once again planted his staff, and the miracle repeated itself, leading to the conversion of thousands. However, this act attracted the wrath of the king, who sent soldiers to arrest Christopher. Whilst facing imprisonment and pressure to abandon his faith, Christopher remained steadfast. Two women, Nicaea and Aquilina, were sent to dissuade him, but instead, they too became believers in Christ. Enraged by Christopher's refusal to worship his gods, the king subjected him to various tortures, all of which inexplicably failed to harm him. When Christopher was later beheaded, his extraordinary faith left a lasting impact. The king, despite his earlier hostility, experienced miraculous healing after applying Christopher's blood to his eyes and praying to the God of St. Christopher. This transformative event led the king to embrace Christianity and decree that anyone who blasphemed against the God of Christopher would face execution.

The issue with St Christopher, which is often the case with the majority of earlier saints, is that his medieval hagiography and veneration is more for didactic reasons than any real biography. As with St Gelert, they most probably was a real missionary with the name Gelert of Christopher, but popular myth overtook reality. There was, in fact, some attempt to connect Christopher with another saint, St Menas, who was from Marmarica in North Africa and martyred at the hands of the Romans in Antioch. There is no reason to disregard this theory as it may well be the case that this is simply one person with two identities as adaptions into Coptic, Greek, and Latin mistranslate and skew certain facts for moral pursuits. Yet, what is most peculiar is the emergence in the 14th century of iconography that showed Christopher with the head of the dog. This is not necessarily something nuanced as many dog-headed men appear in images of the Pentecost, especially in eastern renditions of the church such as Armenia as well as the west. These dog-headed men are symbolic of being the ‘ultimate foreigner’ and represent the farthest race present at the Pentecost to emphasise the reach of Christendom. Sometimes dog-headed men are shown in images relating to the missions set forth by the Apostles to far reaching lands.

Perhaps more absurd than the dog-head, however, is the believed reasoning behind it. Although the Christian world used Latin, for many it was a second or even third language that they had to learn. As such, medieval historians who handle raw texts have all witnessed ‘good-latin’ and ‘bad-latin’ with location being closely linked to ability. In Anglo-Saxon England and the Celtic kingdoms, for example, Latin is by no means as good as that found in Florence or Bologna. Often spelling is more phonetic and grammar is almost non-existent. As such, the link between St Christopher and the dog-head is most probably due to a repeated mistranslation. As stated before, Christopher was believed to be a Canaanite which in Latin is Cananeus. Canineus, however, means Dog-Men. As such, from a philological approach, what most probably occurred was a series of mistranslations that links Christopher to being a Dog-Man as opposed to a Canaanite. Thus, medieval contemporaries believed Christopher to be a cynocephaly. In the Historia Gentis Langobardorum, Paul the Deacon writes:

“They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe.”

Likewise, Marco Polo states:

“Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.”

As such, the notion of a dog-headed race was not farfetched in the middle ages. Perhaps there was a metaphorical meaning behind the Cananeus/Canineus similarity along with St Christophers story that linked it to dogs. In Christopher we see attributes of humility, service, dedication, piety, and companionship which were all linked to the nature of dogs. As such, rather than monstrous, Christopher’s iconography was emphasising his holy attributes as a dog-like companion to Christ. This link between animals and saints in iconography is very common in Medieval art. St Francis of Assisi, for example, is often shown preaching to birds as a sign of his missionary work and piety as birds would then fly off to distant lands chirping the songs of Christ. From martyrdom to revelation, readers will find animals featured in almost all hagiographies of saints. That being said, however, the 13th century has shown that as much as saints may influence the surrounding population, they too are as much shaped by popular myths and legends.

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