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The papacy, Inquisition and Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound

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Just before 1261 the Dominican inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon (d.1261) visited an area of south-eastern France known as the Dombes, in the diocese of Lyons and there found that women were venerating a certain St Guinefort as a healer of children. He was extremely pleased to hear this, until he discovered that St Guinefort was not a holy man, but a greyhound. Furthermore, he discovered that the women of the Dombes were involved in a rite which allowed for the death of sickly babies. The medieval Church was unwavering in its condemnation of infanticide. Yet Stephen of Bourbon chose to shut down the rite, rather than impose more severe penalties, suggesting that he did not suspect ritual murder. The Church’s censure was not just a ban on a non-orthodox cult, or a theological statement that animals could not be saints, or a crackdown on magical and heretical practices¬†– although it was all these things. It was also the condemnation of a healing cult that had got badly out of hand. The legend of St Guinefort the Holy Greyhound reveals the medieval Church engaged in a familiar struggle: to balance popular piety with orthodox teaching.

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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 31, 2018

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