The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints

The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints

The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints

The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints

Synopsis

In 1384, a poor and illiterate peasant woman named Ermine moved to the city of Reims with her elderly husband. Her era was troubled by war, plague, and schism within the Catholic Church, and Ermine could easily have slipped unobserved through the cracks of history. After the loss of her husband, however, things took a remarkable but frightening turn. For the last ten months of her life, Ermine was tormented by nightly visions of angels and demons. In her nocturnal terrors, she was attacked by animals, beaten and kidnapped by devils in disguise, and exposed to carnal spectacles; on other nights, she was blessed by saints, even visited by the Virgin Mary. She confessed these strange occurrences to an Augustinian friar known as Jean le Graveur, who recorded them all in vivid detail.

Was Ermine a saint in the making, an impostor, an incipient witch, or a madwoman? Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski ponders answers to these questions in the historical and theological context of this troubled woman's experiences. With empathy and acuity, Blumenfeld-Kosinski examines Ermine's life in fourteenth-century Reims, her relationship with her confessor, her ascetic and devotional practices, and her reported encounters with heavenly and hellish beings. Supplemented by translated excerpts from Jean's account, The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims brings to life an episode that helped precipitate one of the major clerical controversies of late medieval Europe, revealing surprising truths about the era's conceptions of piety and possession.

Excerpt

When I first read The Visions of Ermine de Reims in June 2000, I was stunned and very moved. Reading about her tribulations brought tears to my eyes, not a very scholarly reaction to be sure but one that motivated me to pursue her story for many years. She interested me because she seemed to fit into two broad categories that characterize my research: issues of sanctity and mysticism and the politics of late medieval France. André Vauchez, with whom I had many conversations about Ermine, wrote about her in the preface to Claude Arnaud-Gillet’s excellent 1997 edition; he saw that worries about the Great Schism of the Western Church seemed to be a central part of the Visions. It certainly seemed strange to me that such a simple peasant woman should be concerned—or even know—about this decades-long division of the Catholic Church. This puzzlement about the attitudes of laypeople in the face of this grave crisis was at the origin of my 2006 book Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism (1378–1417), where I devoted a few pages to Ermine. But she continued to haunt me, and I wanted to know more about her. in 2010 I published a long article about her in Speculum, but I still felt there was more to know and to say.

Although the modern editor chose to entitle the text that Ermine’s confessor Jean le Graveur composed The Visions of Ermine de Reims, Jean himself refers to Ermine’s experiences mostly as adventures (aventures). Adventure means literally “things that happen to us,” and this term truly captures the happenings in this peculiar text. the word adventure also evokes medieval romances, of course, texts in which realistic and supernatural elements had coexisted for centuries. One only has to think of the Arthurian romances and those dealing with the Holy Grail to understand how a medieval audience may have reacted to the term aventures. But in truth, Ermine’s experiences were so unusual that both the editor of the Visions and the German scholar Paul Gerhard Schmidt agree that she and what her confessor wrote about her . . .

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