What the Dog “Saint” Teaches Us About Plausible Deniability and Child Murder

From the Middle Ages up to the 1930s, many Catholics revered a dog named Guinefort as a saint who protected infants. Parents would leave a sickly baby overnight at the shrine of “Saint” Guinefort. As a result, the baby usually died of exposure. Of course, some babies did not die so easily. As a result, many parents believed that evil spirits had stolen their baby, leaving an evil changeling in its place. These parents might then go to the dog’s shrine to perform dangerous rituals on the changeling, to persuade the evil spirits to return their healthy child. As a result, the “changeling” usually died. The purpose of these rituals was for parents to rid themselves of a burdensome child, but in a way that would absolve them of guilt and that would not cause them to lose social standing.

Modern-day people might be shocked at such barbaric superstitions. Yet these practices reflect a sense of morality. The parents, who were often on the edge of starvation themselves, wanted to rid themselves of a burdensome child whom nobody else wanted. Even today, many people in India and China kill their infant daughters, or allow them to starve to death, because it is uneconomical to rear daughters. If a child died during a religious ritual, the death was God’s will. The parents can then deny that they were to blame.

In the Middle Ages, there were no effective contraceptives. Nor was there a welfare state to provide healthcare and other kinds of support to the parents of sick children. Yet the parents did not want to bear the guilt and shame of killing their child or allowing their child to die of neglect. Instead, they performed a ritual that felt as if they were doing something to help the child. Today, parents can achieve the same effect by choosing faith healing instead of modern medicine for a sick child who has become too much for them to bear.

Saint” Guinefort was a greyhound. His life story is a variation on the classic tale of the Brahmin and the Mongoose. This story is classified as type 178A in the Aarne-Thompson system of classifying folktales. The gist of the story is that someone rashly killed a faithful animal after jumping to the false conclusion that the animal had killed a child, when the animal had actually protected the child by killing a venomous snake. In ancient India, the faithful animal was a mongoose. In the European versions of the tale, the faithful animal is usually a hound. “Saint” Guinefort supposedly killed a snake that was threatening a baby. Guinefort was then supposedly killed by his owner, a knight who lived in a castle near Lyon, in France. Overcome by remorse, the knight then buried Guinefort and set up a shrine on his grave.

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was accepted practice for unhealthy or simply unwanted babies to be left outdoors somewhere, to freeze or starve to death or to be eaten by wild animals. This practice was called exposure. In Italy, it gave rise to the surname Esposito, which meant “exposed one.” This surname was given to abandoned children whose parentage was unknown. The French equivalent is Trouvé, which means “found.”

The Roman Catholic Church disapproved of nonhuman “saints” and actively suppressed the cult of “Saint” Guinefort. Yet it created institutions that serve the same deadly purpose as the dog-saint’s shrine. The Church created foundling homes, which were institutions that offered a safe and often anonymous way for a parent to drop off an unwanted infant. Some of these institutions had a “foundling wheel,” which was a hatch where people could drop off an infant anonymously. Yet the foundling homes were not a safe haven for the unwanted babies. In some of these institutions, 80% or even 100% of the children died, sometimes as a result of simple starvation. In other words, the Church did not want you to allow your baby to die of neglect at a pagan shrine. Instead, it wanted you to give your child to the Church, so the nuns could allow your child to die of neglect. Many of these dead children were even denied a Christian burial.

The foundling homes actually ended up causing the birth of even more unwanted babies. When a woman gave up her newborn, she stopped breast-feeding. As a result, she quickly became fertile again. The result was often yet another unwanted child.

To stop this slaughter of the innocents, you must improve women’s rights, such as by eliminating the dowry system in India. As long as people view daughters as a burden, rather than a blessing, the lives of baby girls will be in danger. You must also give poor women access to effective birth control. Starting in 2009, the state-run Colorado Family Planning Initiative began making some highly effective but expensive contraceptives (IUDs and implantable birth control) available for free or for a low cost. As a result, births to teen mothers in Colorado dropped by 40%, and the number of abortions in Colorado dropped by 35%. Second, you must ensure that families have access to healthcare. Ideally, healthcare should be provided free at the point of service to the patient, as it has been in Britain since 1948. Third, you must ensure that your state has an effective system of child protection. When a family decides to allow a burdensome sickly child to die of neglect disguised as faith healing, the state can take over medical guardianship of the child or even take the burdensome child off the family’s hands.

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