- The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
At the tail end of the fourteenth century, a poor, unlettered woman was tormented nightly by extraordinary visions of monstrous demons that inflicted excessive violence on her body and tempted her away from orthodoxy, visions that were collected and recorded by her confessor, Jean Le Graveur (see Entre Dieu et Satan: les visions d’Ermine de Reims (†1396), recueillies et transcrites par Jean le Graveur, ed. by Claude Arnaud-Gillet (Florence: Sismel, Edizioni del Galluzo, 1997)). In this comprehensive and sympathetic study, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski sheds new light on the largely neglected figure of Ermine de Reims (c. 1347–1396). Ermine, Blumenfeld-Kosinski argues, is not only unique among late [End Page 583] medieval visionaries, but functions as an important window into the often-silenced lives of ‘common’ (poor, uneducated, illiterate) women, and the ways these lives intersected with wider political and religious debates. The book is clearly organized and easily navigable, and each chapter explores a distinct aspect of Ermine’s life and visions, drawing on a wide range of material concerning other holy women, visionaries, and saintly and demonic encounters to set this unusual individual in her historical and interpretive context and tease out her particularities. Chapter 1 provides a survey of the social, religious, and textual contexts within which Ermine lived and in which her strange visions were recorded, taking in the civic turmoil of fourteenth-century France, and the evolution of lay women’s penitential practices and medieval forms of religious literature. From this broad overview, Blumenfeld-Kosinski moves to a closer analysis of the relationship between Ermine and her confessor-recorder, Jean Le Graveur. Examining this ‘holy couple’ alongside a range of other pairs of female visionaries and male redactors, Blumenfeld-Kosinski emphasizes Jean’s particular importance not only in shaping the text and its authenticity (Chapter 2), but establishing Ermine’s devotional practices and articulating the contours of religious orthodoxy (Chapter 3). Orthodoxy and authenticity are also at stake in Chapter 5, which places Ermine’s case within wider medieval debates on the discernment of spirits, examining both how Ermine performed this discernment by distinguishing saintly apparitions from demonic counterfeits, and how her visions were received (and eventually rejected) by the theological commentator Jean Gerson. Chapter 4 engages most closely with the demonic apparitions themselves: Blumenfeld-Kosinski considers the demons that torment Ermine in the light of both hagiographic models and the emerging late medieval discourse on witchcraft, foregrounding the role of gendered and sexual bodies. Throughout she demonstrates how the text of Ermine’s visions weaves together the personal and the political, considering for example how, through the figure of charismatic preacher Jean de Varennes, the Great Schism of the Catholic Church exerts an influence on this unlettered, self-professed ‘simple’ woman. A selection of representative passages from the Visions in English translation in the Appendix is a helpful adjunct to Blumenfeld-Kosinski’s argument, and for the first time renders portions of the text accessible to non-francophones. Indeed, the emphasis on contextualizing Ermine makes this book accessible even to those unfamiliar with the religious and political setting of fourteenth-century France. Encouraging reflection on questions of authorship, gender, and class, this is an effective and welcome addition to discussion of lay women’s piety and visionary culture in late medieval Europe.