St Ives

St Ives of Tréguier (1253-1303) 
Judge, advocate and priest 
Feast Day: 19 May

A saint who sprang from the earliest days of the university and the modern legal profession, his example has continued to inspire lawyers across the centuries.

"A new star which is rising in the sky of Brittany."

Pope Clement VII, announcing the canonization of St Ives at Avignon on 19 May 1347.

"For all who exercise a legal profession, whose patron saint he is, he remains the voice of justice, which is ordained to reconciliation and peace in order to create new relations among individuals and communities and build a more impartial society. I give thanks for the shining example he offers to Christians today, and on a broader scale, to all people of good will, inviting them to walk on paths of justice, of respect for the law and of solidarity with the poor, to serve the truth and to take part in "a new creativity in charity" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 50)."

Pope John Paul II in a message celebrating St Ives' 700th anniversary, 13 May 2003.

"I have never been totally sure of myself when I pronounce a judgment. This conference and the journey of the "Grand Pardon" have made me understand that I must change the way I look at the people who are before me and that I must first, as St Ives did, love them, understand them and feel solidarity with them no matter what the reasons for their being before me."

A senior French judge, reflecting on the festival or "Grand Pardon" for St Ives' 700th anniversary. Written in a letter to Bishop Fruchaud of Saint-Brieuc and Tréguier and quoted by the Bishop in his homily in October 2003 for the conclusion of the celebrations.

Ives Hélory (Erwan in Breton, Yves in French) was born in 1248 on the promontory of Brittany, which was then an independent country, a tense buffer state between France and England. His parents were minor nobles, presiding over the chateau of Kermartin near Tréguier, and he had a brother and 3 sisters (1).

1.  Thierry Hamon, "Saint Ives' Will" ("Le testament de Saint Yves"), in the journal "Armorik", no. 1, May 2003, p. 143. 

© C. Warren

His personality

Ives was a strange mixture of humility and the grand, rhetorical gesture. He seems to have known that actions speak louder than words. Giving away his clothes to the poor was, to be sure, the most spectacular example (52). But we also find him reluctantly accepting the gift of a fine horse from the Bishop, only to insist that his servant should ride it, while he followed behind on foot (53).

Jean Balcou points out how often Ives is reported as the victim of the aggression of others, but that often he has provoked the aggression because his behaviour is so out of step with the values of the world. Perhaps offended simply by his appearance, let alone his behaviour, people didn't hesitate to call him a vagrant, a lout and a beggar. Balcou points out that "the witnesses naively sigh: "when he could have such beautiful clothes!" If even the poor were astonished, what would the others say - what did they say?" (54) Indeed, when Ives recovered the horse from the king's envoys, he angered not only the envoy but also the treasurer of the Cathedral, the Bishop's brother, who publicly called him a rascal (55).

Perhaps their feelings were only exacerbated by Ives' equally provocative response: "Not only does Ives not respond to the insults but he shows patience in every trial. "Patience" is one of the virtues most often cited in the witness statements. He even exaggerates this patience in never showing himself so agreeable as upon such occasions. His face then is the most agreeably welcoming and he often happens to explode with a "joyous laugh". Because "joy" and "gaiety" are equally often evoked" (56). Ives, after all, was a peace maker, in and outside his court, and was not about to start a fight over something as unimportant as his own dignity.

His own brother-in-law called him crazy and refused to buy a horse from Ives to raise money for the poor (57). (Horses seem to recur in Ives' story - no doubt they were a very valuable asset.) One can imagine how they must have felt at seeing Ives - in their eyes - squander his family's inheritance: reaping early because there was famine afoot and he needed to feed his poor (58); cutting gorse when it was cold; cutting down trees (another valuable asset) to help with repairs to the Cathedral (59); allowing a juggler, his wife and their four children to live with him, and indeed off him, for years (60). A witness called Denis Jameray reported that Ives "very much preferred keeping company with the poor than with the rich" But, as Balcou says, "the real "provocation" is exactly that: to value the poor person more than the rich" (61).

Like so many saints, he exasperated his friends as well as his enemies by prioritizing heavenly over earthly things. One feels for the hospitable friends who prepared delicious meals for Ives, only to watch him, with equal politeness, pretend to eat them (62); or for Panthonada, wife of the juggler, who carefully washed his rough flaxen shirt only to see him put it on still wet (63). Panthonada reappears in another anecdote, holding her nose while Ives was washing his visitors (64).

Ives was an emotional person even by the standards of an emotional age - Balcou points out that people had little privacy in the Middle Ages, and were less prone to hide their feelings: "Thus behold Ives Helory in the midst of celebrating Mass, praying, preaching, hearing confessions or simply taking a poor person in his arms: he sighs heavily, laments, tears belabour his face … Let us only quote Ives Avispice who was in his service for the twelve years before his death, when he describes his master at prayer: "With great groans, sighs and tears he would pray this way for a long time, with such devotion that most often he would wet the clothes on his chest with tears" (65).

Ives as a straight talker

But along with the patience, the gaiety and the empathy, Ives could also be tough and plain speaking. He thought it was the world that had its priorities out of order, and we know of at least one occasion when he didn't scruple to say so. Jean Balcou takes up the story: "Preaching at a crossroads, he sees the lord of Coetpont passing on by … "Look: the one who is going away there is full of the malice of the devil, because if there were four girls here and a drum of the devil, he would have stayed with pleasure, and he didn't want to stop to hear the word of God: I pray that for this reason his flesh will do penance before his death." As Balcou says, "One hears Ives rarely in the witness statements, but this time one hears him well" - or, as we would say in English, "loud and clear". And the lord was in fact paralysed until he sought forgiveness (66). (When tempted to discount such supernatural elements in the story of St Ives, one should remember G.K Chesterton's comment about St Francis, that if we don't believe the stories of St Francis's miracles, why should we believe anything else that his contemporaries said about him? (67))

Full integration of professional, charitable and spiritual concerns

Ives' life was fully integrated - he refused to separate his religious principles from his professional or personal life, or to recognize any area of his life where the interests of God and His poor shouldn't rank first. His legal and religious interests, his public life and personal devotion, mingled freely, without any attempt to keep them separate. As Thierry Hamon points out, because Ives was a judge by trade and not a lawyer, "it is not his profession but his faith which pushes him to take up juridically the defence of unfortunate people who were too poor to be able to have recourse to the services of the ordinary auxiliaries of Justice" (68). He offered hospitality even in his place of work, welcoming the poor of Rennes to a meal in the courthouse on feast days (69).

He moved from advocacy to preaching, and from defending the legal rights of the poor to feeding, washing, heating and housing them. The dignity of his office, represented by his fur trimmed robes, couldn't stand in the way of his vocation for asceticism - though he must have cut a strange figure, sitting on the bench in his ragged undershirt. He didn't just dispense charity in the outside world, but also welcomed the needy into his home. Before paying teachers to undertake the lessons of poor children and orphans, this highly educated man took the trouble to prepare them for classes himself.

Ives' legal calling also crops up in his story in some unexpected ways. He was brushing up on his legal education - hearing lectures on the famous textbook, the "Sentences" of Peter the Lombard (and also the Bible) - when he first felt the call to asceticism. This occurred at the "studium" of the Franciscans in Rennes - admittedly an unlikely provider of continuing professional development, by the standards of today.  And later in his life, in pursuit of that same asceticism, we find him using, instead of a pillow, an even more famous textbook of canon law, the "Decretals" of Gratian. 

St Ives' will is the only legal document - indeed the only writing of any kind - which has survived to the present day. And yet even this legal document begins with a humble statement of his Christian vocation: "Ego Yvo Helorii sacerdos indignus servus Christi vilissimus", which means "I, Ives Helory, unworthy priest and very vile servant of Christ". 

We apologize for the incompleteness of these footnotes, which are still something of a work in progress.

52.  [        ]
53.  [             ]
54.  Balcou, p. 15.
55.  Balcou, pp. 17-18.
56.  Balcou, p. 18.
57.  [           ]
59.  Balcou, p. 20.
61.  Balcou, pp. 16-17.
63.  Balcou, p. 21
64.  [      ]
65.  Balcou, pp. 18-19
66.  Balcou, p. 18.
67.  [           ]
68.  Hamon, p. 123
69.  Balcou, p. 16.