- The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Fabian Alejandro Campagne, Ermine de Reims, Medieval Saints, Medieval Witchcraft, medieval women, discernment of spirits, mental illness
Between November 1395 and August 1396, Ermine, a poor peasant widow from Vermandois, in Northern France, was subjected to a violent and [End Page 115] brutal religious experience, which mostly took place in the small room where she was living in a state of semi-seclusion; the cell was adjacent to the priory of Saint-Paul du Val-des-Écoliers, whose canons were protectors and spiritual guides of the humble beata. The story is highly original because of the endless succession of hierophanies and diabolophanies the woman experienced in such a short period of time. During those ten months, Ermine's most frequent visitors were demons that tirelessly plagued her in the most diverse ways, both day and night. To this end, as if they were making an experimental demonstration of the scholastic theory of aerial bodies, unclean spirits resorted to a vast repertoire of disguises, representations, simulacra, and virtual identities. Sometimes they entered the room transformed into ferocious beasts and disgusting vermin. At other times, they took on the appearance of popular Christian saints. But the most outstanding feature of these irruptions was the extreme violence the invaders exerted on Ermine's fragile body. The diabolic hordes savagely beat her, destroyed much of her material possessions, transported her by air over long distances (in a fascinating prefiguration of the witches' Sabbat still to come), interrupted her pious practices, and permanently disturbed her night's sleep. However, the visionary beata was not left abandoned during this long ordeal. After a first stage monopolized by diabolical illusions, heavenly voices and celestial agents began to appear in the room more frequently each time. These authentic supernatural manifestations (as opposed to the preternatural raids carried out by demons) fulfilled a dual function: on the one hand, they stopped the actions of the devils that put the woman's life at risk; on the other hand, they gave meaning to her long suffering, explaining why the Deity allowed and authorized the vicious attacks of the enraged fallen angels. At the end of her life, and as a reward for the patience, obedience, and humility demonstrated until then, Ermine began experiencing a great number of Eucharistic visions. The enigmatic beata died on August 25, 1396 because of a plague that ravaged the city that summer. A year after her death, Ermine herself (her ghost, in fact), fulfilling (post mortem) an order from her spiritual advisors, appeared to Isabelle, a five-year-old girl, with the aim of confirming her supernatural destiny and the state of beatitude she was then enjoying: a classic happy ending after an interminable list of earthly tribulations.
Ermine's adventures have come to us through a manuscript written by her confessor, Jean le Graveur, subprior of Saint-Paul du Val-des-Écoliers, in Reims. With the collaboration of other local church leaders, le Graveur [End Page 116] undertook the construction of this hagiographic device with the undisguised aim of laying the groundwork for an eventual canonization process. However, in searching for support for this enterprise, Ermine's lobbyists made a fatal miscalculation: they tried to get approval from Jean Gerson, the influential chancellor of the University of Paris. After reading the manuscript, Gerson had no doctrinal objections to make. However, given the unusual nature of the events narrated, and fearing that the detailed account of satanic harassments could scandalize a laity deeply disoriented by the Great Schism, he suggested that the text should be translated into Latin to limit its circulation. Gerson's prudent reaction was a mortal blow from which the project—the transformation of Ermine into a new civic saint—could never recover. Both the French version and the Latin translation of the manuscript quickly fell into oblivion, until a team of French medievalists exhumed and published...