Ermine de Reims was a relatively inconsequential peasant woman who moved to the town of Reims, in northeastern France, from rural Vermandois with her elderly husband in 1384. She was a pious woman, described by her confessor Jean le Graveur as “a simple little woman full of good will” who became somewhat of a mystic after her husband’s death when she came to live at the Augustinian priory with the community of monks to which her confessor belonged. It was at this time that Ermine’s life took a strange turn and she began to experience nightly visions of both angelic and demonic visitors, which were diligently recorded by le Graveur in all their gruesome and fantastical details.
The strange case of Ermine de Reims was actually not all that strange to those who lived in her time. The constant presence of angels and demons was accepted as part of everyday life in medieval Western Christendom and yet Ermine’s case became a source of much controversy and debate in the decades following her death. The reason for this was much bigger than Ermine herself. The wheels of history were turning in her world and the era in which she lived was on the precipice of great change as its very foundations were shaken and chaos reigned. Ermine’s story is one of how a simple peasant woman came to play an important part in a pivotal moment in European history.
Ermine de Reims suffered from visions and demonic encounters. In the image St. Catherine and the Demons by an unknown artist circa 1500 on display at the National Museum in Warsaw. ( Public domain )
Vexations and Voices: Ermine de Reims and her Visions
The torment of Ermine de Reims, according to the record of her visions, began on the 24th of November, 1395, and only ended with her death from plague, contracted when caring for a sick neighbor, on the 25th of August, 1396. Although they are loosely termed as “visions,” Ermine’s encounters were a much more physical experience than simple visuals, involving all her senses: hearing, smell, touch, and even taste when in one episode she actually licks a demon.
Her visions carry all the hallmarks of demonic encounters. By the later Middle Ages, demons no longer operated as external harbingers of evil but had penetrated into the souls of individuals and represented their darkest desires that were simultaneously attractive and frightening. Demons often took human form to play the role of seducers, and Ermine was frequently confronted with sexual or seductive visions:
“Suddenly she saw in the middle of her bedchamber a young and handsome man and a young and beautiful woman; they began to embrace and kiss each other and then lay down on the floor and committed a sin together. And the devil did all this in front of her because he wanted her to take evil pleasure in fleshly sin. When they were done, the young man went up to her bed and said, ‘Aren’t you miserable, you who kill yourself with fasting, not sleeping, wearing a hair shirt…It would be much better if you lived a pleasant life and that you satisfy the appetites of your body, for you will never be able to avoid eternal damnation.’”
Ermine was also assaulted by a veritable zoo of wild beasts, another common theme in medieval demonic encounters. Her nocturnal visitors range from the smallest flies, who crawled over her body for days, to a house cat with fire-red eyes, seven bats that flew at her face, a gigantic dog on her windowsill, alongside a huge serpent and even a bear.
Perhaps her most disturbing animal visitors were the toads, with whom she had several encounters. In one case she woke from a dream to find a toad attached to her face putting its head in her mouth. She stepped out of bed only to slip on more toads which disappeared when she sprinkled holy water on them. On another occasion, Ermine was praying in her room and felt three toads moving between her legs. After they disappeared she fell asleep and when she awoke, there was a demon in the form of a man stretched out next to her in bed. He also disappeared with the application of holy water.
Aerial journeys were a common feature of demonic activity in the Middle Ages and were actually a precursor to the Early Modern idea that witches flew around on brooms. Ermine experienced physical aerial journeys on several occasions, according to the record made by Jean le Graveur. In one incident, she was carried by a demon above the courtyard of the priory and dumped in front of the church, and in another she was left by demons on top of the church, where she clung to the stone cross mounted on the roof.
Her most traumatic journey took her to the woods of Nantueil. After being kidnapped in the street by three men on black horses and carried to the woods, she was then deposited in the midst of an enormous crowd of demons dressed in black and found her way home with the assistance of an apparition of St. Paul the Simple.
Ermine had many divine encounters as well, visited by angels and many different saints, but some of these visitors were revealed to actually be demons taking on angelic forms in order to deceive her. Ermine however, was always able to uncover the deception and unmask the pretenders. It is this ability that made her more than a simple peasant woman, and it fascinated theologians of her time who were trying to answer the important question: how could one know if a vision is sent from God or the Devil?
Ermine had many divine encounters and was visited by both demons and angels. Image depicts The Annunciation by Juan de Flandes. ( Public domain )
The Discernment of Spirits
The art of classifying spiritual possession and distinguishing the divine from the diabolical is known as the discernment of spirits. In the late 14th century, the focus on discernment of spirits had sharpened among theologians as Western Christendom underwent a reconfiguration of belief in and function of supernatural forces. This upheaval of faith had been brought about by a triad of disaster: the Black Plague of 1346 to 1353, the Hundred Years War between England and France that began in 1337, and the Western Schism of 1378 to 1417 which pitted the French church against the English.
These three momentous historical events, particularly the Schism which created an institutional authority vacuum, brought about a crisis of faith for many European Christians. The realm of authenticity became elusive as evil “doubles” were cropping up to confuse and test the fidelity of Christendom on an international level, and one method for combatting this problem was spiritual discernment.
Ermine de Reims ’ visions were intended by her confessor to serve as a sort of guide to discernment. Her experiences pushed the boundaries of what could be considered holy and her natural ability to distinguish between the divine and the demonic made her a living example of discernment, a droit mirouer (“correct mirror”) to teach people how to guard against the devil and his minions.
Ermine’s confessor painted her as something of a saintly figure, claiming she performed a posthumous miracle in 1397 possessed by the divine spirit which is what allowed her to discern the demons in her visions, even when they appeared in the form of holy men or partook in the Eucharist.
The late 14th century was a dangerous time to be a holy woman in France however, as concepts of demonology were changing and the idea that demons were associated with witchcraft was beginning to emerge. Demons were no longer just agents of evil designed to test steadfastness of faith, but they could enter the human body (voluntarily or involuntarily) and be exorcised as well (systematised institutional exorcisms began after the turn of the 15th century).
It is for this reason discernment of spirits became so important, not just by the individual experiencing the supernatural encounter but by the community at large and at an official level by the church authorities. For Ermine, she was able to discern diabolical from divine by her strength of faith and her participation in the clerical practices of the Augustinian monks . On a societal level, the discernment became more complex: Jean le Graveur submitted the record of Ermine’s visions to Jean Gerson in 1401 for judgment, an influential theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris who had set himself up as a sort of arbiter of the supernatural.
Gerson’s initial judgment was cautiously positive, although he advised against the distribution of the visions except among those who could discern what was holy and what was not. Gerson applied the same principles of discernment to his defense of Joan of Arc in the 1420s, but unfortunately for Joan the judgment was not so positive and she was burned at the stake.
The thin line between divine mysticism and demonic witchcraft was blurry, and the symptoms a person experiencing either one would exhibit were virtually identical: levitation, prophesy, speaking in tongues, trances, or unusual bodily marks. To discern one from the other, one had to have extensive knowledge of the mechanics of spiritual possession and the complex theology behind it that had developed over the course of more than a millennium.
Painting by Fra Angelico entitled Annunciation. ( Public domain )
Immateriality and the Mechanics of Possession
During the 13th century, concepts of demonology and angelology changed so that the idea of immateriality became the dominant theory. For the preceding millennium, Augustine’s idea that angels and demons had ethereal bodies had been the dominant theory, but around the 1230s Thomas Aquinas’ ideology gained more traction. Aquinas believed in the absolute immateriality of supernatural substances, but his rationale allowed for them to interact with the physical realm and manipulate natural forces, although they were bound by the same laws as the rest of creation (i.e. divine law).
The theory of immateriality presented some new difficulties however, such as how immaterial beings could produce effects within the physical realm without the use of a physical body, and the struggle to resolve this theological issue is evident in Ermine’s visions. “It is said that demons are made of nothing but in this very same moment, I am rolling them like balls just in front of me,” Ermine was quoted to have said.
One of the ways for immaterial beings to enact their will in the physical realm however, was through spiritual possession of a human being. There are several types of possession a person could experience. Ermine was simultaneously possessed by the Divine spirit while also experiencing involuntary demonic possessions, and such a person (energumen) was different from one who voluntarily acted as a demonic medium (a pythoness), or witches who voluntarily copulated with demons in the form of incubi.
All spiritual possession in the Middle Ages was thought to be via literal entry into the body. Once inside, the foreign spirit interacted with the body’s internal physiology – organs, mind, and spirit. The human spirit existed within the body as a refined liquid substance produced in the left ventricle of the heart from inspired air, which was thought to be the seat of the human spirit and soul. This was perhaps the origin of the popular saying “from the bottom of my heart.”
The annunciation by Karel Dujardin. ( Public domain )
Once leaving the heart, spiritus moved through the body via the arteries and could be transformed into “natural” spirit based in the liver, which controlled involuntary activities like digestion and sexual activity. It could also be purified into “animal” spirit (named for the soul, anima) as it ascended towards the head, which resided in the brain and regulated the nervous system and intellect.
The spirit acted as an intermediary between the immaterial soul and the material body and only God himself possessed the ability to replace a human spirit with a supernatural one, so the only type of spiritual possession that could inhabit the heart was of divine origin. While demons could not possess the immaterial soul, they could disrupt the function of the human spirit as the informational conduit between the body and soul and its control over the senses, giving them the ability to confuse or tempt the soul, and this is exactly how Ermine’s demonic possession manifested itself in her visions.
The physiological model of possession did not provide a clear basis for discernment of spirits, but it was helpful in some instances. The location of a spirit within the body determined whether it was divine or diabolical: for example, demons were believed to inhabit the visceral or “unclean” parts of the body, so during an exorcism a spirit could be expelled from the body by vomiting a solid object, such as a toad or worm, or even a piece of coal, which would indicate demonic possession. Conversely, signs of divine possession could also sometimes be found on the body, such as the autopsy of Clare of Montefalco which revealed the imprint of a crucifix on her heart.
Although the importance of Ermine’s visions was not immediately apparent, her experiences were in fact a crucial part of a huge turning point in the history of Christianity. The record of her visions, made by Jean le Graveur, presented a challenge to the theologians of the time who were in the midst of grappling with changes in the foundational principles of their faith.
Ermine’s experiences embodied many aspects of the crisis of faith that Western Christendom had been faced with, brought on by the triple disaster of plague, war and papal schism, and the reception her visions received demonstrate the process of change that resulted from this tumultuous era. The decades that followed Ermine’s death saw the construction of a new demonology and new ideas about mysticism that would form the underlying ideologies of the Malleus Maleficarum and the witch hunts of the Early Modern era.
Top image: Representational image of Ermine de Reims. Source: inarik / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
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Elliott, Dyan. 2002. “Seeing Double: John Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc.” The American Historical Review 107, no. 1.