Yes, Britain is secular – but would we benefit from more holy days?

‘They had a social function – get together, have a knees-up, have a drink, have a feast’  (Getty/iStock)
‘They had a social function – get together, have a knees-up, have a drink, have a feast’ (Getty/iStock)

You might well consider your dog a good boy or girl. But how good? Good enough, perhaps, to fetch a stick or discard a saliva-sodden chew toy. All very admirable. But is your dog truly good? Is it gallant, loyal, pious? Is it saintly? Is it… a saint?

Today, as the Reverend Richard Coles has pointed out, is St Guinefort’s Day. Guinefort was a 13th-century French greyhound whose tale was recorded by Stephen of Bourbon, a Dominican monk and inquisitor. Guinefort, Stephen tells us, belonged to a knight who lived with his wife in a castle near Lyon. When the couple went out for the day, they left Guinefort to guard their infant son. On their return, they found blood spattered around the floored cradle. There was blood on Guinefort’s muzzle, too. Thinking good Guinefort must have savaged the baby, the knight drew his sword and killed his faithful hound… only to find that the baby was unharmed and that the blood was a snake’s. The snake had made for the baby and Guinefort had leapt at it, knocking over the cradle but saving its resident.

Belatedly recognising Guinefort’s heroism, the knight built him a shrine. Long after the knight’s death, local peasants brought offerings to the shrine, hoping to secure good health for their children. As any scholar of theological calendars will tell you, it is untrue that “every dog has its day.” But Guinefort does, and that day is today: 22 August.

Dutiful Catholics observed St Guinefort’s Day even into the 20th century. The practice withstood centuries of suppression by the Catholic Church, which had come to disapprove of lay saints (and disapproved in particular of canine lay saints). Like a dog with a bone, the peasants could not let go. They braved fines and ridicule to seek divine assistance in the local woods, where they would knot tree branches in the hope of figuratively binding ailments. The legend lived on.

“You can’t keep a good greyhound down,” Coles tells me. “People kept on venerating him. But he’s dodgy – he’s not in the [official] calendar, because dogs can’t be saints.”

One wonders whether medieval people were quite so po-faced as we imagine them. Would they have taken the story entirely seriously? Might there have been a trace of light-heartedness in their pilgrimages? Probably not, says Coles, who is the author of Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints. “Desperate parents, then and now, will try anything to get a sick child better. I’m sure those prayers were sincere, and I’m sure stories began to circulate about miraculous healings, as so often happens. Lots of people anchor their faith not just to the Church, to the official religion of state and empire, but to things that are meaningful to them, and often that’s local people, local places, local greyhounds.”

He is interrupted by a high-pitched bark. It is Pongo, Coles’s 11-year-old long-haired dachshund. “Pongo is not going to be canonised,” says Coles, “because even by dog standards, he is venal. He’s a relentless barker.”

Dogs, for all their virtues, are probably more venal than venerable. They are devoted, Coles says, but they don’t have human morality. “The issue is that saints are people who live in anticipation of heaven and manifest, in their lives, the virtues of the blessed. And dogs don’t do that, because they’re really just interested in food and barking and humping legs and things.” (I hope Pongo is happily humping a table leg rather than listening to his master.)

Nevertheless, stories like Guinefort’s are not uncommon in myth and legend. Welsh readers might be thinking of Gelert, a noble hound whose story – the snake is swapped for a wolf – is near identical to Guinefort’s. Underlying both these stories, apparently, is The Brahmin and the Mongoose, a folk tale from India. So widespread is the “faithful hound motif” that it has its own entry in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, an academic catalogue of folk-tale types.

Perhaps because dogs take a putatively human virtue (loyalty) to greater lengths than most humans would, we enjoy hearing about them. Take Greyfriars Bobby, the Victorian terrier who is said to have guarded his owner’s grave for 14 years. Bobby was awarded the Key to the City of Edinburgh and is immortalised by a statue. His “lovely, touching” story, says Coles politely, “is a work of art rather than science, if I can put it that way”.

An artist’s rendering of St Guinefort, the venerated canine (Wikimedia)
An artist’s rendering of St Guinefort, the venerated canine (Wikimedia)

The medieval calendar was teeming with holy days. Christians from back then might have understood why we’ve let St Guinefort’s Day slide, but they’d probably be agog to learn how quickly festivals such as Ascension Day and Corpus Christi have vanished from our lives. These holidays were ostensibly religious, but they gave the year texture and colour. “They had a social function,” says Coles. “Get together, have a knees-up, have a drink, have a feast. That’s particularly important, I guess, in midwinter, which is why the one that really endures is Christmas, because we need a bit of tinsel, and some turkey.”

That still leaves gaps in our calendar – gaps that we might be filling. Coles refers to Glastonbury. “[Music] festivals remind me quite a lot of the sort of medieval pilgrimages, people coming from far away and setting up camp in a field to kind of meet other people and to remind themselves of the values that they want to live by.”

Coles sees country-house opera – Glyndebourne being an example – as similarly reminiscent of pilgrimages. “There’s an echo, in that people dress up and go along to somewhere to make a basis for something important. People go to art galleries almost like they used to go to cathedrals, and there are hushed voices telling you what things mean.”

We might imagine Coles’s modern-day examples to be categorically different in that they are commercial enterprises. But even if that were entirely the case, it wouldn’t make modern events wholly unlike pilgrimages. The cheap necklaces sold to pilgrims at St Audrey’s shrine became known as “tawdry lace” – giving us the word “tawdry”.

People want to remember because they feel it emotionally, and they feel it’s part of their identity to remember the person or the saint. They need to do something in order to keep their memory alive

Miles Pattenden, historian

Miles Pattenden, a historian who specialises in Catholicism, sees similar likenesses between the medieval and modern minds. “We need things to remember,” he says, “and the kinds of things that we look to remember haven’t necessarily changed that much over the centuries. We want to remember good acts, important events. And a lot of these old Christian holidays essentially commemorate the same kinds of things as more recent national holidays.” Armistice Day and Bastille Day, like the old Christian holidays, stand for a form of mass salvation.

And, as Pattenden points out, a story like Guinefort’s would easily make the news pages if it occurred today. “People love a dog that does something heroic,” he says, referring, like Coles, to Greyfriars Bobby.

In more recent times, he says, we apply a form of posthumous veneration to celebrities rather than religious figures. Diana, of course, is an example. “People want to remember because they feel it emotionally, and they feel it’s part of their identity to remember the person or the saint. They need to do something in order to keep their memory alive, in order to kind of live out who they are. That’s how a lot of people feel about it.”

Modern-day saintly figures will be supplanted just as their predecessors were. Dr Pattenden, who is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, recalls a short story, written by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, “which imagines all these saints” – those scrubbed from the calendar – “turning up in Canada as kind of lost souls, because the Pope has said they don’t exist any more”. Perhaps, in a parallel universe somewhere, Diana and Guinefort are teaming up to heal sick children.

It seems that the woodland seat of Guinefort’s shine is long lost to folk memory, but we should not let papal fury separate us from recognising the heroism of one of history’s noblest dogs. Happy St Guinefort’s Day, no matter how you celebrate.