23 October 2015


Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski. The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints. Pennsylvania University Press, 2015.

Ermine, who died in 1396, was a widow who had caught hard religion, which entailed mortification of the flesh and that sort of thing. Over the last ten months of her life she experienced a series of mainly, but not exclusively, night visions. Strange people entered her bedroom and tempted her. A naked couple came into her room and had sex in front of her.
Various images of saints appear, but through her discernment and the aid of her confessor Jean le Graveur (with whom she had taken up residence) was able to tell that many were demons in disguise. There were various ways of doing this, but the most important to the confessor, was that they stayed on message; if , for example, they told Ermine that everyone was saved by Christ’s sacrifice, then you knew they were demons out to lead you astray. On other occasions the demons appeared in monstrous forms, though they could also appear as angels and little cherubs.

Like many of today’s anomalous personal experiences, Ermine’s included ambiguous physical evidence. She was taken on aerial journeys, in one of which she is lifted up and carried high above the courtyard and dumped in front of the church, evidence for this is her shoes found lying there. On April 17 1396 three men in black (dark clothes and dark leathery skin), speaking in an unknown language and took her up to the ledge of the church and then another lot throw her down, leaving her to be rescued by a good spirit; Paul the Simple, who guides her home. The confessor assures us that this really happened as her scarf and rosary were found on the route. 

On yet another occasion the three men in black, riding black horses, accost her in the street and take her to a forest where there was a crowd of demons saying “ugly things” in a language she could not understand. This is the forest of Nateuil near the village of Saint Lie and “Paul the Simple” escorts her to the church there where she heard a mass celebrated by one Jean de Varennes who fulminated against the Avignon Pope.

Much of Ermine’s visionary experience is, according to Blumenfeld-Kosinski, centred on the central religio-political issue of the day, the great schism in the Catholic Church, with rival popes in Rome and Avignon, each supported by the rival superpowers of the day. For the pious at this time, this was a terrifying state of affairs; who could know which, if either, of these “popes” was the real one, and if you took the wrong side, to hell you went. This meant that at least one of these “popes” must be a demonic imposter masquerading as an angel of light, clearly echoed in her visions of demons pretending to be saints or even Jesus.

The political meets the personal, in her unconscious mourning for her married sexual life, and such desires being regarded as “sins”. Living with the male confessor may have only added to this longing. In these visions we can see how material from the deep imagination, mingles with the political and personal. Such visions are, as Magonia readers will know, not confined the middle ages, though today demons might be replaced by poltergeists, ghosts or alien abductors, that the triple layers of deep imagination, the cultural and the personal still fuel them. -- Peter Rogerson

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