The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims

In 1395, a poor and illiterate French woman began to experience nightly visions of devils and angels. Was she a saint, a witch, an impostor, or a madwoman? Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski looks for answers in the historical and theological context of this troubled woman's life and times.

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

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

2015 | 248 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $24.95
History | Religion | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Ermine and Her World
Chapter 2. Ermine and Her Confessor, Jean le Graveur
Chapter 3. Ermine's Piety and Devotional Practices
Chapter 4. Ermine and Her Demons
Chapter 5. Ermine and the Discernment of Spirits

Appendix. The Visions of Ermine de Reims


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 editor chose to entitle the text, 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 were "unique" in the fourteenth century. No other holy woman, Schmidt states, was frightened at such length and to such an extent as poor Ermine. Indeed, Ermine being battered and mocked by demons ceaselessly for the last ten months of her life (interspersed with a few divinely sent revelations and consolations) is the gist of .the Visions. A reader cannot help but ask what the matter was with Ermine. Was she mad? Was she ill? Did she suffer from hallucinations?

Throughout the years I worked on this book, I conversed with my friend and colleague Paula M. Kane, who was studying an equally strange case but a much more modern one: that of Margaret Reilly, known as Sister Thorn, a New York stigmatic living in the community of the Good Shepherds in Peekskill, whose experiences made her famous in the 1930s. Many of her tribulations were exact copies of Ermine's: demonic assaults on her body and also on her belongings, like furniture or dishes, of the kind Kane calls Poltergeist vexations. We were aware of course that over the centuries certain models and patterns for both divine and demonic visions had been established; nonetheless, these similarities led to long discussions about possible ways of understanding our peculiar women. For an analysis of a holy woman in the 1930s numerous conceptual frameworks are available: medicine, psychoanalysis, interwar American Church politics, and more; these are brilliantly explored by Kane in her book. But what about a holy woman in the fourteenth century?


In his 2012 fascinating study of hallucinations Oliver Sacks observes that the supernatural and the pathological were often separated in the medieval and early modern periods, although the symptoms may have been identical. He states that "until the eighteenth century, voices—like visions—were ascribed to supernatural agencies: gods or demons, angels or djinns. No doubt there was sometimes overlap between such voices and those of psychosis or hysteria, but for the most part, voices were not regarded as pathological." Sacks highlights that the term supernatural can refer to divine or demonic actions. Indeed, it was always difficult to distinguish between the two. Was a visionary woman granted divine grace or possessed by the devil? Did she suffer from hallucinations, perhaps caused by some mental illness? Certainly, medieval scholars did not exclude medical causes for seemingly supernatural experiences. Bartolomeus Anglicus, the famous thirteenth-century encyclopedist, for example, "spoke of natural causes of mental illness in the region of the brain around the lateral ventricles." In the tradition of the ancient medical writer Galen, "medieval medical psychology was biological, not demonological. But not experimental either." What was crucial was how supernatural phenomena were interpreted.

Of course, it is hard to resist the desire to diagnose a case like Ermine's. If I wanted to practice retrospective medicine, I would consult Dr. Sacks and ask him to examine Ermine in the framework of hallucinatory states. Since many of Ermine's experiences involved apparitions and voices just when she was about to or had just gone to sleep, one might be tempted to describe them as "hypnagogic hallucinations," that is, those that occur on the threshold of sleep. Sacks quotes Andreas Mavromatis's 1991 study that tells of a man in 1886 who reported seeing "animals that have no fellows in creation, diabolical looking," thus repeating centuries of visions that fill hagiographical accounts from antiquity to modern times. Mavromatis defines hypnagogia as "the unique state between consciousness and sleep," which has some similarities with "dreams, meditations, trance." Anyone who has studied medieval visions knows how difficult it is to distinguish between these different states.

Mavromatis's "hypnopompic" or waking hallucinations are also similar to some of Ermine's. He describes one person's visions of hideous animals, black angels, an ugly man lying on the floor, and even of "a little devil riding a bicycle at the foot of his bed." Sacks summarizes:

Given the outlandish quality of some hypnopompic images, their often terrifying emotional resonance, and perhaps the heightened susceptibility that may go with such states, it is very understandable that hypnopompic visions of angels and devils may engender not only wonder and horror but belief in their physical reality. Indeed, one must wonder to what degree the very idea of monsters, ghostly spirits, or phantoms originated with such hallucinations. One can easily imagine that, coupled with a personal or cultural disposition to believe in a disembodied spiritual realm, these hallucinations, though they have a real physiological basis, might reinforce a belief in the supernatural.
Sacks makes two crucial points here: that these kinds of hallucinations can be accepted as physical reality and that they reinforce belief in the supernatural. Sacks' argument seems to me the key for an understanding of Ermine's visions. What she sees and hears is represented unambiguously as real; her confessor reports in a matter-of-fact way things that are so outlandish that we want to cry out: but they can't be real, she must be hallucinating, she might be crazy!

Ariel Glucklich rightly notes that over the centuries "the Church had struggled to distinguish between mystical experience and various forms of 'insanity,' such as epilepsy, possession, humoral imbalance, and others." For quite a long time scholars had accepted the idea, popularized by Gregory Zilboorg in his 1941 History of Medical Psychology, that all medieval people considered mental illness a form of diabolic possession and that the only "treatment" was exorcism or even death. Thirty years later Jerome Kroll debunked this idea in a by-now classic article. He showed that most often mentally ill people were seen as such and treated more or less compassionately by the society of their time. He also argued that what we might consider extreme "pathological behavior" today was often accepted as "normal, if possibly peculiar" in the fourteenth century and that what really mattered was the "the determination of whether the behavior was in the service of Christ or in the service of Satan."

Another twenty years later the French historian Muriel Laharie explored medieval ideas about and attitudes toward madness in an excellent study that analyzed medical explanations of mental illness and the many remedies medieval scholars proposed to cure it. Both natural (herbal potions as well as psychological help) and supernatural means (in the shape of healing saints) were enlisted in this curative process. She also showed that in addition to being part of medieval medicine—and even what one could call psychotherapy avant la lettre—mental illness, often divided into different manifestations such as mania or melancholia, was integrated into a triple framework of moralization (mental illness is caused by sin), sanctification (such as the notion of "God's fool"), and diabolization. A mad person, if subject to what Laharie calls "demonopathic manifestations" or possession could thus become an object of competition in the "fight between God and Satan." As in Kroll's arguments, we find here the idea of discernment that was so central to Churchmen in Ermine's era. Was a person "possessed" by a demon or chosen by God for special experiences? The crucial point is that throughout the middle ages multiple frameworks were available for the interpretation of extraordinary mental states, and consequently it was far from clear to Ermine's contemporaries how a case like hers should be interpreted.

Jean le Graveur and his superiors were thus aware that the kinds of behavior Ermine exhibited and the ways in which she reported the relentless demonic torments inflicted on her could be considered from a number of different perspectives: Ermine could suffer from demonic possession and/or mental illness or else enjoy a divinely sanctioned state of grace. In late nineteenth-century France, Jean-Martin Charcot, the famous psychiatrist, faced a similar interpretive dilemma. Charcot was treating women whose symptoms and behavior recalled that of their medieval sisters, but as Cristina Mazzoni observes, "With Charcot, then, phenomena that had previously been regarded (though not always without suspicion) as manifestations of the supernatural—be it the divine supernatural, as in the case of mysticism, or the demonic supernatural, as in the case of sorcery or possession by the devil—were systematically reinterpreted with a new and powerful hermeneutic tool: the concept of neurosis and, preeminently, of hysteria." Charcot thus faced the same quandary as Ermine's contemporaries had faced and found the solution in a new definition of hysteria and the invention of what he believed were appropriate treatments.

Ermine's confessor chose the framework of divine intervention for his account of Ermine's experiences. For him, God's will became manifest through this simple and pious woman. How and why Jean le Graveur and his superiors chose to adopt a mostly positive stance toward Ermine will be explored in this book. Thus I resist the temptation to put Ermine on the couch or submit her to tests and scans, but rather aim to place her into the multiple frameworks in which her medieval contemporaries would have seen her. I choose to subscribe to Glucklich's cautious approach; speaking of the sixteenth-century Italian saint Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi, whose self-inflicted torments he analyzes, Glucklich states: "The broadest problem in the application of psychotherapy to saints such as Maria Maddalena is the monumental methodological reduction it entails. The assumption that a single culture-bound clinical theory can explain vast amounts of cases across cultures and centuries is tenuous." In order to illuminate the many facets of Ermine's experiences and Jean's record of them, I have divided this study into chapters that treat different aspects of her "strange case" from perspectives that were available to people in late fourteenth-century France.

The Plan of This Book

I first explore the world Ermine lived in: the city of Reims at a time of great political and religious turmoil; her state of widowhood and the economic constraints she experienced; the religious landscape of France at the time and especially of the city of Reims. I also define her status in view of the existence of different groups of "quasireligious" women. Chapter 2 examines the notion of the "holy couple" that consists of a confessor-biographer and a holy woman. I place Jean le Graveur and Ermine in the context of other such couples to highlight both similarities and differences. Ermine's devotion and ascetic practices are at the center of Chapter 3, while the next two chapters analyze two different kinds of demonic apparitions and their effect on Ermine: demons in human and animal shape and demons masquerading as saints ("counterfeit saints"). The epilogue takes a brief look at Ermine's afterlife and explores what the manuscripts can tell us about the reception and judgment of Ermine. The English translations of large parts of Jean le Graveur's text that appear as an appendix to this book give a flavor, I hope, of the drama and unusual structure of the Visions. Since the manuscripts of the Visions have no illustrations (except for a much later touchingly inept sketch of her grave plate that I reproduce as Figure 10), I chose images that I hope will enrich and illustrate the arguments of this book.