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Stephen de Bourbon (d. 1262): De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort

353. Further on the said error of heretical depravity, something must be said about the superstition of the vain cult of divinations, incantations, oracles, the diverse devilish delusions by which the Devil attacks the Christian people, drawing after him with the tail of fallacious seduction innumerable souls of the stupid. There is an infinite number of these…

Master Jacques [de Vitry]: When the king of Castille mustered an army to go against the Saracens, a flock of tiny crows met the army. Some of the king's knights advised him to go back, saying that evil would arise, they would be defeated by the enemy if they went on. They claimed to have learned this from the prattle of the crows and the way they were flying around. The king answered them with some mockery: "These crows are hardly four years old, while I have campaigned against the Saracens for more than twenty years and know the science and means of warfare better than them. Maybe they have come from another region where they were born and brought up. So they will not know how to tell us much about the Saracen problem, which I have known and lived through. You ought better to put your trust in me than them." And despising their advice, he went on to defeat the Saracens.

354. I also heard of a Spanish schoolman who believed in auguries. He was all ready for a journey to return to his homeland, when one of his companions stopped him from leaving by crowing outside the house door as if he was a crow. He thought it was an evil omen!

355. Master Jacques also tells of a man who gave lodging to a countryman at fair time. When the guest wanted to leave, his host finding him profitable made a noise with a bladder and when the countryman heard it he said it was a bad omen and came right back. The host only let him go when other guests arrived.

356. He tells also of an old woman who fell sick and was warned to make confession. She said she was sure she would live another five years because she had heard on Mayday le cucu as if calling to her five times. When she was again admonished [to confess], she could no longer speak and just called out cucu, gesturing with her five fingers. And so she died deceived without viaticum [the last rites]or confession.

357. It is not just demons that seduce men but also those who hold themselves out as diviners since they really know nothing of the future. I have heard of a woman who owned a great enclosed manor, with at the furthest end her house where she would speak with visitors. In the beginning she lived in the house with her household (familia). When her people indicated that strangers were coming to her, she would lurk in her chamber to hear why they were traveling and where they were coming from and other details (circumstancias) which her people astutely asked about. When she had heard all this, she hurried to another house by secret ways, working out en route how she would answer them. Someone from her household would lead the travelers by a roundabout route to the other house, making believe that it was very far away. Then when she met them she would greet them by their proper names and tell them the reasons for their journey, where they had been and other stuff. They thought she had total foreknowledge and had divined all this.

I heard of another woman that she had her rogues (ribaldos) out on the roads to question travelers and give her advance knowledge about them.


370. The sixth thing to say is about insulting superstitions, some of which are insulting to God, others to man. The superstitions which attribute divine honors to demons or any other creature insult God. Idolatry is one example, or when wretched women sorcerers seek salvation through the adoration of saddles (sambuca) to which they make offerings, through the condemnation of churches and relics of the saints, through carrying their children to ant-hills or other places in search of healing.

This is what they did recently in the diocese of Lyons. When preaching there against sorcery and hearing confessions, I heard many women confess that they had carried their children to St. Guinefort. I thought he was some saint. I made inquiries and at last heard that he was a certain greyhound killed in the following way. In the diocese of Lyons, close to the vill of the nuns called Villeneuve, on the land belonging to the lord of Villars-en-Dombe, there was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. But when the lord and lady and the nurse too had left the house, leaving the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child's cradle. The greyhound, who had remained there, saw this, dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child's cradle which he left all bloodied as was his mouth and head, with the snake's blood, and stood there by the cradle all beaten about by the snake. When the nurse came back and saw this, she thought the child had been killed and eaten by the dog and so gave out an almighty scream. The child's mother heard this, rushed in, saw and thought the same and she too screamed. Then the knight similarly once he got there believed the same, and drawing his sword killed the dog. Only then did they approach the child and find him unharmed, sleeping sweetly in fact. On further investigation, they discovered the snake torn up by the dog's bites and dead. Now that they had learned the truth of the matter, they were embarrassed (dolentes) that they had so unjustly killed a dog so useful to them and threw his body into a well in front of the castle gate, and placing over it a very large heap of stones they planted trees nearby as a memorial of the deed.

But the castle was in due course destroyed by divine will, and the land reduced to a desert abandoned by its inhabitants. The local peasants hearing of the dog's noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other needs. They were seduced and often cheated by the Devil so that he might in this way lead men into error. Women especially, with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league to another nearby castle where an old woman could teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the right spot. When they got there, they offered salt and certain other things, hung the child's little clothes (diapers?) on the bramble bushes around, fixing them on the thorns. They then put the naked baby through the opening between the trunks of two trees, the mother standing on one side and throwing her child nine times to the old woman on the other side, while invoking the demons to adjure the fauns in the wood of "Rimite" to take the sick and failing child which they said belonged to them (the fauns) and return to them their own child big, plump, live and healthy. Once this was done, the killer mothers took the baby and placed it naked at the foot of the tree on the straws of a cradle, lit at both ends two candles a thumbsbreadth thick with fire they had brought with them and fastened them on the trunk above. Then, while the candles were consumed, they went far enough away that they could neither hear nor see the child. In this way the burning candles burned up and killed a number of babies, as we have heard from others in the same place.

One woman told me that after she had invoked the fauns and left, she saw a wolf leaving the wood and going to the child and the wolf (or the devil in wolf's form, so she said) would have devoured it had she not been moved by her maternal feelings and prevented it. On the other hand, if when they returned they found the child alive, they picked it up and carried it to a swiftly flowing river nearby, called the Chalaronne [tributary of the Saône], and immersed it nine times, to the point where if it escaped dying on the spot or soon after, it must have had very tough innards.

We went to the place and assembled the people and preached against the practice. We then had the dead dog dug up and the grove of trees cut down and burned along with the dog's bones. Then we had an edict enacted by the lords of the land threatening the spoliation and fining of any people who gathered there for such a purpose in future.

371. Another of the things insulting to God is when prophecies are made from the sacraments or sacramental things or sacred things pertaining to the divine services. There was an exemplum of this placed above in the section about sacrilege and irreverence to holy things [s. 317], about the peasant who retained Christ's body in a beehive to examine the bees.

I have also heard that when a certain woman from the diocese of Lyons at her Easter communion had retained [in her mouth] Christ's body to do sorcery with, she wound it in cloth and put it in her purse. Then while she was asleep she saw a most beautiful choir descending from Heaven adoring a very beautiful youth and taking him back to the heavens with them. She was so terrified and excited by this vision that she determined never to admit what she had done. But she was soon struck by an amazing pain and could not find Christ's Body where she had put it. She now felt her feet and hands unbearably wrenched about. As a result she turned to penitence, called the priest, confessed her sin with weeping and bitterness and was restored to health.

ANOTHER VERSION in ref The Sorceress.

Le Moine et la sorcière, aka The Sorceress France (1987): Historical/Drama, 97 minutes. Director: Suzanne Schiffman; Cast includes Tchéky Karyo and Christine Boisson

The Sorceress was written by a professional Medieval scholar - Pamela Berger of Boston College - and was shot in both French and English. It is based on a genuine medieval text by the 13th-century Dominican, Etienne de Bourbon, about the cult of St. Guinefort near Lyons in France. St. Guinefort (probably derived from "Cynephoros" in Greek, sometimes a name for St. Christopher) was a sainted greyhound! The story, which is slow but involving, focuses accurately on early 13th century historical issues: the survival of "folk" culture; the role of women; the beginnings of the Dominican order; the use of profit-based farming techniques (in this case carp ponds) by local nobilities. The actors are professional, and the story has interesting twists. A very good film for classroom use.


[This is from a printed text, but I only two xeroxed pages, and no record of the author. There was an online version at Paul Hyamn's pages at Cornell, but that seems to have disappeared. I am cc'ing this to a couple of other lists in order to see if any one recognizes the source! Although after my recent effort to get people to talk about Alexius I and Robert of Flanders' I am not sure anyone is interested in texts!]

Stephen of Bourbon (Etienne de Bourbon) (died about 1262): De Supersticione:

On the Worship of the Dog Guinefort

Sixthly, I should speak of offensive superstitions, some of which are offensive to God, others to our fellow men. Offensive to God are those which honour demons or other creatures as if they were divine: it is what idolatry does, and it is what the wretched women who cast lots do, who seek salvation by worshipping elder trees or making offerings to them; scoming churches and holy relics, they take their children to these elder trees, or to anthills, or to other things in order that a cure may be effected.

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 that this was actually a greyhound, which had been killed in the following manner.

In the diocese of Lyons, near the enclosed nuns' village called Neuville, on the estate of the Lord of Villars, was a castle, the lord of which and his wife had a baby boy. One day, when the lord and lady had gone out of the house, and the nurse had done likewise, leaving the baby alone in the cradle, a huge serpent entered the house and approached the baby's cradle. Seeing this, the greyhound, which had remained behind, chased the serpent and, attacking it beneath the cradle, upset the cradle and bit the serpent all over, which defended itself, biting the dog equally severely. Finally, the dog killed it and threw it well away from the cradle. The cradle, the floor, the dog's mouth and head were all drenched in the serpent's blood. Although badly hurt by the serpent, the dog remained on guard beside the cradle. When the nurse came back and saw all this she thought that the dog had devoured the child, and let out a scream of misery. Hearing it the child's mother also ran up, looked, thought the same thing and screamed too. Likewise the knight, when he arrived, thought the same thing and drew his sword and killed the dog. Then, when they went closer to the baby they found it safe and sound, sleeping peacefully. Casting around for some explanation, they discovered the serpent, tom to pieces by the dog's bites, and now dead. Realising then the true facts of the matter, and deeply regretting having unjustly killed so useful a dog they threw it into a well in front of the manor door, threw a great pile of stones on top of it, and planted trees beside it, in memory of the event Now, by divine will, the manor was destroyed and the estate reduced to a desert,* was abandoned by its inhabitants. But the peasants, hearing of the dog's conduct and of how it had been killed, although innocent, and for a deed for which it might have expected praise, visited the place, honoured the dog as a martyr, prayed to it when they were sick or in need of something, and many there fell victim to the enticements and illusions of the devil, who in this way used to lead men into error. Above all, though, it was women with sick or weak children who took them to this place. They would go and seek out an old woman in a fortified town a league distant and she taught them the rituals they should enact in order to make offerings to demons, and in order to invoke them and she led them to the place. When they arrived, they would make offerings of salt and other things; they would hang their babies' swaddling-clothes on the bushes roundabout: they would drive nails into the trees which had grown in this place; they would pass the naked babies between the trunks of two trees the mother, on one side, held the baby and threw it nine times to the old woman, who was on the other side. Invoking the demons, they called upon the fauns in the forest of Rimite to take the sick, feeble child which, they said, was theirs, and to return their child that the fauns had taken away, fat and well, safe and sound.

Having done this, the infanticidal mothers took their children and laid them naked at the foot of the tree on straw from the cradle; then, using the light they had brought with them, they lit two candies, each an inch long, one on each side of the child's head and fixed them in -the trunk above it. Then they withdrew until the candles had burnt out, so as not to see the child or hear him crying. Several people have told us that while the candies were burning like this they burnt and killed several babies. One woman also told me that she had just invoked the fauns and was withdrawing from the scene when she saw a wolf come out of the forest towards the baby. If maternal love had not made her feel pity and go back for him, the wolf, or as she put it, the devil in the shape of a wolf, would have devoured the baby.

When a mother returned to her child and found it still alive, she carried it out into the fast-flowing waters of a nearby river, called the Chalaronne [a tributary of the Sa6nel, and plunged it in nine times; if it came through without dying on the spot. or shortly afterwards, it had a very strong constitution.

We went to this place, we called together all the people on the estate, and we preached against everything that had been said. We had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog. And 1 had an edict passed by the lords of the estate, warning that anyone going thenceforth to that place for any such reason would be liable to have his possessions seized and then sold.


*The O.E.D. gives'an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country; a wilderness: a. now conceived as a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless. and with but scanty growth of herbage. . . b. formerly more widely applied to any wild, uninhabited region, including forest-land.' It is in the latter sense that the word is employed here. Tr.


Although this document has been available to scholars for a hundred years it has never previously been fully studied. Graus, the great historian of early medieval hagiography, mentions it in a footnote, but his book, outstanding though it is, is grounded in a set of concerns and a methodology which prevents him from making fuller use of it. Most of the references to this document are by folklorists; some, notably Baring-Gould in England and Saintyves in France, are interested exclusively in the narrative of the dog's death, which they compare to similar narratives in medieval literature or in more recent popular literature. and some literary historians, Gaston Paris in particular. have shared this approach. Other folklorists have concentrated their attention upon the child-healing rite, so as to demonstrate the antiquity of ritual practices still surviving in the countryside. Finally, local historians have seen the text as a picturesque illustration of the'primitivism' which has long been attributed to the inhabitants of the Dombes. Very few have sought to give this document the thorough investigation that it deserves."

One can perhaps account for this silence, and for the inadequate treatment that this document has received in the last hundred years, in terms of a fundamentally ideological reluctance to admit that such a cult could have existed. One could also invoke the general positivism of the period, and the lack of contact between disciplines. This new attempt at an interpretation has not come about by chance, however, but is the outcome of a collective enquiry into the literature of exempla, the narrative genre to which this document belongs. This enquiry is itself part of a broad current of research into 'popular literature', 'oral traditions'. 'popular culture' 'popular religion' and so on. I do not propose, however, to survey the various and often contradictory approaches that these expressions cover," nor even to situate my own work in relation to them. My approach and methodology will become clear as I proceed with the analysis of the text. Meanwhile, I shall simply set out the main questions that the text raises, and try to explain how I think one might answer them.

There is one question that is in urgent need of an answer. It concerns the relationship between the two cultures, one of which is literate, Latinate, urban, clerical, responsible for Christian orthodoxy, drawing its strength from its powers of temporal and spiritual coercion, and which produced this text, the other of which is popular (in the limited, sociological sense of the word), oral, vernacular, peasant, secular, Christian also (although in a different sense), and which, in the text, is the object of both a description and a repression. I shall follow the conventional usage, and call the former 'learned culture' and the latter 'folk culture'. (The advantage of this latter term is that it avoids the ambiguities attached to the term'popular, although it admits those attached to the term 'folk', or to 'folklore'.) However, regardless of the customary use of the term ('folk'/'folklore'), my choice of 'folk culture' clearly situates the present work within a scientific anthropological perspective.



Anecdotes historiques…d'Étienne de Bourbon, ed. A. Lecoy de Marche (Librairie Renouard: Paris, 1877), 314-29. Translated (by Paul Hyams?) at

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, September 8, 2000
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