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The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims

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

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims
    Book Description:

    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 Reimsbrings 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9133-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)

    When I first readThe Visions of Ermine de Reimsin 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;¹ he saw...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Ermine and Her World
    (pp. 1-26)

    When Ermine and her elderly husband, Regnault, approached the city of Reims with its magnificent cathedral and impressive fortifications, they knew that they were entering a new kind of life. At home, in Lucheux, a small town in rural Vermandois, just west of the northern French city of Arras, Regnault had labored on his rented plot of land until the weakness and infirmity of old age forced him to admit that he could no longer provide for himself and his wife in this way. The decision to leave their home and friends must have been a difficult one, especially since...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Ermine and Her Confessor, Jean le Graveur
    (pp. 27-57)

    Let us imagine the moment when Jean le Graveur suggested to Ermine that she could “move in with him.” Of course, he did not mean this in the modern sense: they would not cohabit as a couple, but nonetheless she would be very near him at all times, just a stone’s throw from the Augustinian priory he called home. Here is how Jean describes the crucial moment that occurred in 1393:

    And it happened that Regnault passed away and he was seventy-two at the time of his death, and Ermine was forty-six. After her husband died, Ermine’s friends came to...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Ermine’s Piety and Devotional Practices
    (pp. 58-95)

    Endless prayers and fasts, copious tears and intense sufferings imitating Christ’s Passion, an almost frenzied devotion to the Eucharist, hair shirts and hard beds, self-inflicted torments with chains and nettles, fights with demons and angelic visitations—these were some of the hallmarks of late medieval piety and devotion as practiced by the most fervent women and men.¹ But at the same time, these Christians were also part of a community, be it religious or lay, that followed prescribed rules and rituals, communicated to them by their superiors or parish priests. The tension between the moderate religious practices championed by most...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Ermine and Her Demons
    (pp. 96-126)

    On January 28, 1396, the prior of Saint Denis in Reims ordered Ermine to do penance at Saint-Maur, a chapel at a certain distance from her home. As she hurried along the busy streets of Reims on this cold wintry day, she was suddenly accosted by a man she did not know. Or was it a demon in the shape of a man? Jean le Graveur is not quite sure. Ermine, not surprisingly, was consternated as he grabbed her rudely by the chest and said, “Where are you going, you whore? Are you going whoring?” Terribly scared, she answered sweetly,...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Ermine and the Discernment of Spirits
    (pp. 127-150)

    Imagine the following scenario: as you are about to go to sleep in your modest dwelling in medieval Reims, you hear the sound of a little bell. The door opens and two small angels enter, followed by a priest dressed in gold. He declares, “I am Saint Augustine,” and offers to celebrate a mass right there in your bedroom. You can even stay in bed, and he will minister to you. Would you be pleased or slightly suspicious? Or even very suspicious? This is the kind of case that falls into the purview of the discernment of spirits, an ecclesiastical...

    (pp. 151-156)

    In 1648 Jacques de Foigny, who had been the last subprior of the Val-des- Ecoliers in Reims before its move to Soissons in 1617, wrote a work entitledLes merveilles de la vie, des combats et victoires d’Ermine, citoyenne de Reims(The marvelous events of the life, the combats, and victories of Ermine, citizen of Reims).¹ Like Gerson he refers to Ermine as “une femmelette, pauvre, ignorante, plus forte que celui que se vante de renverser tout le monde” (a poor and ignorant little woman, stronger than the one who boasts that he can vanquish everyone). He reminisces about how...

  10. APPENDIX. The Visions of Ermine de Reims
    (pp. 157-186)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 187-214)
    (pp. 215-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-234)
    (pp. 235-236)