|St Yves in judge's garb|
Unusually for a Breton saint, Yves was both a real person (in the late 13th century), and an actual official saint, canonised by the pope in 1347. Renown for his passion for helping the poor which led to giving away most of what he had and favouring them in decisions he made as an ecclesiastical judge, he was a synonym for justice and truth. At some point by the early 17th century this reputation had developed a very particular application in the form of St Yves de Verité (Erwan ar Gwirinez or Santik (little saint) ar Wirione in Breton), with a case attested in 1620 when a woman sought vengeance on the landlord who had accused her son of arson. This was indeed the purpose of the cult: a petitioner who felt himself wronged would make a bargain with the saint, calling down vengeance on the guilty party. If his accusation was false, he would suffer the same punishment - death within a year.
The ritual consisted of pilgrimage (in a state of fasting) to the chapel at Trédarzec on three consecutive Mondays as night fell. The petitioner then grasped the shoulder of the statue of St Yves and shook it sharply. This could be because the place was ill-frequented and Yves might have dozed off a bit, but in fact violent treatment of saints' statues by worshippers was widespread in Brittany. Whilst doing this, the petitioner would say the portentous words 'You are the little saint of truth. I make this vow to you. If he is right condemn me. But if I am right let him die within the appointed time.' A coin marked with a cross would then be placed at the foot of the statue, before the customary prayer of a vow would be said BACKWARDS, a clear echo of pagan magic ritual where curses often employed this method. Three ritual circuits of the chapel then followed. Another account says a cobblers' awl was left handy in the chapel for piercing the statue three times, to make a little dust, so anticipating the fate of the guilty party.
|Skull of St Yves - Tréguier cathedral|
The matter was somewhat blurred by the great folklorist Anatole le Braz, who wrote in 1893 that the cult had originally been of St Sul and the chapel destroyed after a notorious murder case in which an old woman claimed to have been asked to carry out a vow of vengeance. In fact the chapel had already been destroyed by then, but a nearby oratory, which still exists, may have caused some confusion. There is also reference to Notre-Dame de la Haine by Emile Souvestre in 1836, but perhaps this was a casual deduction from the standard 'Ave Maria' to be said three times in the course of the ritual.
The attempted destruction of superstition was always an act of folly by the Church - it is the very strength of Breton faith whose tenets are set by the people and their will. God himself would be hard pressed to make impositions on a Breton. Let's not forget we live in a world where recently made statues of unknown saints are said to be working miracles. Today there is apparently a freemasons' lodge at Tréguier with the title Erwan ar Gwirionez. Good luck with that.