St. Guinefort, the Dog Venerated as a Saint

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iStock

For hundreds of years, residents in the Dombes region of eastern France worshipped a saint who was said to help protect infants from illness and danger. They prayed to his name, and brought sick infants to his shrine for healing.

Such tales aren't very unusual for a saint—except this one was a dog.

According to a legend that originated some time before the 12th century, St. Guinefort was a greyhound owned by a wealthy knight. One day, the knight and his wife left their infant son for the day in the care of his nurse and their loyal dog. They returned to find a scene of carnage in the child’s nursery—the crib overturned, and blood spattered around the room. Guinefort had blood smeared all over his muzzle.

The knight, believing that Guinefort had killed his son, struck the dog with his sword, killing him. Immediately afterward, he heard the cry of a baby and found his son, healthy and whole, underneath the overturned crib. (It's not clear where the nurse was during this time, but she evidently wasn't doing a very good job protecting the child.) Next to the baby was a snake that had been bitten to bloody pieces.

The knight realized that he had killed the dog unjustly—Guinefort had in fact protected the baby. To make amends, he buried the dog in a well and planted a grove of trees around it as a memorial.

As the story of the brave and loyal Guinefort spread, people began to visit the well and brought their sick children there for healing. There are reports of women leaving salt as an offering, or placing children in the grove with lit candles overnight in hopes they would be healed by morning.

These local rituals had continued for about a hundred years when a friar named Stephen of Bourbon heard of the legend and the local custom [PDF]. He declared that the veneration of a dog was heathen—the people who were asking for intercession from the saint were really invoking demons, he said, and the women leaving their children at the shrine overnight were trying to commit infanticide. He had the dog’s body dug up and burned, and the trees cut down.

But the cult of St. Guinefort lived on, and the locals continued to pray to him. A folklorist found that the well and grove still existed in the late 1870s, while a historian discovered evidence that people were still venerating the dog-saint after World War I. Reverberations of his legend—that of a dog-healer living in the forest—seem to have lasted as late as the 1960s.

A stylized illuminated manuscript-type illustration of a greyhound
Wikimedia // Public domain

St. Guinefort was never officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church—or anyone else. In order to recognize someone as a saint, the Vatican requires evidence that the person led a holy life and performed miracles. (They also usually require evidence that the individual was human.) But the legend of St. Guinefort dates to before this process of sainthood was formalized, when individuals of great holiness were often spontaneously acclaimed by the people in their local areas.

As it turns out, the Guinefort legend has parallels around the world. There are similar legends elsewhere in Europe and beyond of loyal dogs that are killed after being accused of endangering a child they had in fact protected. One legend from 13th century Wales concerns a dog named Gelert, who saved a child from a wolf but was killed when his master misunderstood the bloodied scene (and thought he'd killed his child instead of the wolf). There is a more modern echo of the story in the film Lady and the Tramp (1955), when Tramp defends a baby from a rat and is hauled off by the dogcatcher for his trouble. In India, a similar story is told about a woman who kills a mongoose who has defended her son from a snake; in Malaysia, the protector is a tame bear who defends a child from a tiger. Folklorists think the tales are told as a caution against acting too hastily in the heat of the moment.

By some accounts, August 22 is St. Guinefort's feast day (although this may be a confusion with an earlier, human saint). And while there's no official dog saint, if you need heavenly intercession for any canine problems, the patron saint of dogs and dog owners is St. Roch—who is also the patron saint for those, like Guinefort, who were unjustly accused.

11 Facts About French Bulldogs

iStock/carolinemaryan
iStock/carolinemaryan

These cute little dogs are enjoying a serious comeback. Here’s the scoop on the fourth most popular dog breed in America. 

1. FRENCH BULLDOGS HAVE ROOTS IN ENGLAND.


iStock/malrok

The French bulldog’s origins are murky, but most sources trace their roots to English bulldogs. Lace makers in England were drawn to the toy version of the dog and would use the smaller pups as lap warmers while they worked. When the lace industry moved to France, they took their dogs with them. There, the English bulldogs probably bred with terriers to create bouledogues français, or French bulldogs. 

2. THEY WERE BRED TO BE GREAT COMPANIONS.

Frenchies are affectionate, friendly dogs that were bred to be companions. Although they’re somewhat slow to be housebroken, they get along well with other dogs and aren’t big barkers. The dogs don’t need much exercise, so they are fine in small areas and enjoy the safety of a crate.

3. THEY CAN'T SWIM.


iStock/ginastancel

As a result of their squat frame and bulbous head, French bulldogs can’t swim, so pool owners should keep a watchful eye on their pups. Keep in mind that if you plan a beach vacation, your furry friend might feel a little left out. 

4. FLYING IS A PROBLEM FOR THEM, TOO.

French Bulldogs are a brachycephalic breed, meaning they have shorter snouts than other dogs. These pushed-in faces can lead to a variety of breathing problems. This facial structure, coupled with high stress and uncomfortably warm temperatures, can lead to fatal situations for dogs with smaller snouts. Many breeds like bulldogs and pugs have perished while flying, so as a result, many airlines have banned them. 

Luckily there are special airlines just for pets, like Pet Jets. These companies will transport dogs with special needs on their own flights separate from their owners. There's a human on board to take care of any pups that get sick or panic. 

5. THEY MAKE GREAT BABYSITTERS.

When a baby orangutan named Malone was abandoned by his mother, the Twycross Zoo in England didn’t know if he would make it. Luckily, a 9-year-old French bulldog named Bugsy stepped in and took care of the little guy. The pair became fast friends and would even fall asleep together. When Malone was big enough, he joined the other orangutans at the zoo. 

6. THEY'RE SENSITIVE TO CRITICISM.

Frenchies are very sensitive, so they do not take criticism lightly. If you scold a French bulldog, it might take it very seriously and mope around the house. French bulldogs respond better to positive reinforcement and encouragement. 

7. THEY'RE A TALKATIVE BREED. 

French bulldogs might not bark much, but they do like to “talk.” Using a complex system of yawns, yips, and gargles, the dogs can convey the illusion of their own language. Sometimes they will even sing along with you in the car. 

8. THEY HAVE TWO STYLES OF EARS. 


iStock/IvonneW

Originally, French bulldogs had rose-shaped ears, similar to their larger relative, the English bulldog. English breeders much preferred the shape, but American breeders liked the unique bat ears. When a rose-eared bulldog was featured at the Westminster Kennel Club in 1897, American dog fanciers were very angry

9. THIS CONTROVERSY LED TO THE FORMATION OF THE FRENCH BULL DOG CLUB OF AMERICA.

The FBDCA was founded in protest of the rose-shaped ears. The organization threw its first specialty show in 1898 at New York City’s famed Waldorf-Astoria. The FBDCA website described the event: “amid palms, potted plants, rich rugs and soft divans. Hundreds of engraved invitations were sent out and the cream of New York society showed up. And, of course, rose-eared dogs were not welcomed.”

The somewhat catty efforts of the club led to the breed moving away from rose-shaped ears entirely. Today, French bulldogs feature the bat-shaped ears American breeders fought to showcase. 

10. MOST FRENCH BULLDOGS ARE BORN THROUGH ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION. 

Due to their unusual proportions, the dogs have a little trouble copulating. Males have a hard time reaching the females, and they often get overheated and exhausted when trying to get things going. As a result, a large majority of French bulldogs are created through artificial insemination. While this measure makes each litter of pups more expensive, it also allows breeders to check for potential problems during the process. 

French bulldogs often also have problems giving birth, so many must undergo a C-section. The operation ensures the dog will not have to weather too much stress and prevents future health complications.

11. CELEBRITIES LOVE FRENCHIES.

Frenchies make plenty of appearances in the tabloids. Celebrities like Lady Gaga, Hugh Jackman, and The Rock have all been seen frolicking with their French bulldogs. Even Leonardo DiCaprio has one—aptly named Django. Hugh Jackman’s Frenchie is named Dali, after the way the dog’s mouth curls like the famous artist’s mustache. 

This article originally ran in 2015.

What’s That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

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iStock.com/JZHunt

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get their attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen. 

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

DUDES AND THEIR SNOODS

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

IN THE SNOOD FOR LOVE

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2013.

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