Thursday, July 2, 2015

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski's "The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims"

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski is Professor of French at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. She is the author of several books, including Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism (1378-1417).

Blumenfeld-Kosinski applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints, and reported the following:
My book chronicles the last few months of the life of an extraordinary visionary named Ermine, a simple woman from late medieval Reims in northern France, who was haunted every night and day by demons in human and animal shape. Occasionally she experienced divinely-sent visions that consoled her in her almost constant anxious misery. Her confessor, an Augustinian friar, transcribed her experiences into a kind of log-book, today known as The Visions of Ermine de Reims. Some of the demons made sexual advances toward Ermine and one demonic couple – of course dressed in black -- even had sex on the floor in front of her bed. Demons and sex were a staple of later witchcraft treatises, but in 1396 when these events occurred it was not clear to ordinary people or even churchmen how to interpret these kinds of demonic assaults.

When I opened my book on page 99 I didn’t expect to find one of my main arguments encapsulated there, but there it was: in a passage from the Visions I quote on that page a demon warns Ermine that she could be accused of being a sorcière, the French word for sorcerer or witch. This one word opens up a whole can of worms: Ermine’s experiences are at a triple crossroads of ancient models of saints being attacked by horrific demons (think for example of the desert saint Saint Anthony and the countless paintings depicting his tribulations) and resisting them; of the model of the sorcerer who “uses magical formulas to summon demons and to enlist them for various, mostly nefarious purposes”; and of theories of witchcraft that posited that especially women worshiped and copulated with the devil and thus had to be put to death. So the analysis of the accusation hurled by a demon at poor Ermine truly captures one of the major goals of my book: to situate Ermine’s experiences and the reception of the Visions at a turning point in European history when the horrific and deadly witch persecutions that lasted all the way into the Enlightenment first began to take shape.
Writers Read: Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski.

My Book, The Movie: The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims.

--Marshal Zeringue