16.02.39, Blumenfeld-Kosinski, The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims

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Barbara Zimbalist

The Medieval Review 16.02.39

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4715-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Barbara Zimbalist
University of Texas at El Paso

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski's newest book once again illuminates channels of exchange and influence between the social, religious, and political spheres of the later Middle Ages. Focusing on a single figure whose life, visions, and relationship with her confessor reveal unexpected contours of female spirituality and authorial practice, The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims argues that this fascinating but neglected visionary's startlingly original spirituality sheds new light on visionary culture, gendered literacy, and vernacular religious texts, and reflects larger cultural tensions intrinsic to the fraught discourses of discretio spirituum and the witch hunts of the subsequent centuries. Building on the interests established by her earlier work on the intersection between visionary culture and the religious, social, and political upheavals of the Great Schism, Blumenfeld-Kosinski shows how texts and figures long viewed or dismissed as marginal are in fact central to fourteenth century culture. Blumenfeld-Kosinski's Strange Case offers new perspective not only on the gendered history of classifying and diagnosing--even pathologizing--women's mystical experience, but on the confluences of these diagnostic impulses with the literary hermeneutic tradition. In keeping with other influential monographs from Penn's The Middle Ages series--like Sara Poor's Mechthild of Magdeburg and her Book and Matthew Kuefler's recent The Making and Unmaking of a Saint--Blumenfeld-Kosinski chooses a single figure as the central focal point around which to analyze multiple literary, religious, and socio-cultural issues. [1] In five chapters framed by an introduction and epilogue, and including an helpful appendix translating selections from Ermine's Visions previously unavailable in an English language edition, Blumenfeld-Kosinski places Ermine, her confessor Jean le Graveur, and the text of her Visions into historical, religious, and cultural context, offering new approaches to visionary women from across Europe whose texts reflected, constructed, and shared similar anxieties, desires, and beliefs.

Chapter 1, "Ermine and her World," situates Ermine and her text within what Barbara Tuchmann called "The Calamitous Fourteenth Century." [ 2] Subdivided into five sections covering social, civic, gender, religious, and textual history, the chapter sets the stage for the book's larger arguments about Ermine and John's authorial collaboration and the reciprocal relationship between the Visions and larger discourses of gender, literacy, and discretio spirituum. Crucially, Blumenfeld-Kosinski distinguishes the Visions from hagiography, suggesting that generically indeterminate texts such as the Visions are ultimately able to offer more insight into "a whole range of issues central to late medieval religious and political thought and life, from repercussions of the Great Schism of the Western Church to devotional practices and ideas about demonic possession, from ideals for female sainthood to incipient notions of witchcraft" than has been demonstrated in studies dedicated solely to the hagiography of the age (3).

The second chapter, "Ermine and Her Confessor, Jean le Graveur," makes a welcome contribution to scholarship examining the complex relationships between visionary women and their male scribes, confessors, and patrons--what Blumenfeld-Kosinski here terms "Holy Couples." Responding to the work of John Coakley, Dyan Elliott, and Barbara Newman, among others, Blumenfeld-Kosinski places Ermine and Jean into the context of other spiritual and literary partnerships, such as Christina of Stommeln and Peter of Dacia, Jacques de Vitry and Marie d'Oignies, and of course, Hildegard of Bingen, Volmar, and Guibert of Gembloux. Blumenfeld-Kosinski shows how Jean thematizes his relationship with Ermine within the text, arguing that he "is an actor in his own and Ermine's drama" while characterizing Ermine primarily through dialogue; Jean is thus the shaper of the saint herself, and less the shaper of her textual identity. The nature of this collaboration distinguishes the Visions from many of its high-medieval predecessors and suggests that critical readings of such "holy couples" as authorial pairs must allow for the emergence of unexpected and alternative configurations that may not align with our critical expectations of gendered spirituality or authorial practice. More abstractly, this reading of Ermine and Jean's collaboration suggests that the presentation of any visionary as representative of female spirituality and devotional practice in a particular time and place inevitably both succeeds and fails: she and her text exist because the context and conditions--lived, literary, and religious--create the necessary space for her own unique practices. Yet she is always simultaneously exceptional in that individual confluence of possibility, and thus inimitable. Blumenfeld-Kosinski's focus on Jean's inadequacy, and the inexpressibility at the heart of visionary literature are particularly resonant throughout the chapter, and offer a nuanced reading of male-female collaborative authorship that provides a gentle corrective to scholarship that would take as its starting point modern assumptions of overlapping gender hierarchies and authorial practice in the high- and late Middle Ages.

Chapter 3, "Ermine's Piety and Devotional Practice" treats the Visions as a didactic text that both borrows and diverges from "established patterns of devotion and asceticism" (58). In service of this argument, the chapter explores not only Ermine's devotional practices but Jean's pastoral care, showing that the spirituality and devotional practice generated by the "holy couples" discussed in the previous chapter cannot be studied in isolation. The chapter also surveys issues within vernacular and Latinate devotion as represented by other holy couples, from famous collaborators Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua to less well-known couples. The comparison to contemporary visionaries is one of the books' great strengths, pointing to future avenues for work in this subfield and showing not only the interconnection of this textual, spiritual female community, but the intertextuality that produced and maintained it. As in other twelfth- and thirteenth- century vitae, Ermine's asceticism provides cautionary limits--her overwhelmingly demonic visions, which act as a test of her faith, are an exception, not to be admired or imitated. Ultimately, the textual presentation of Ermine's visions within Jean's texts of the Visions performs clerical regulation of potentially dangerous experiences for a laywoman; as Blumenfeld-Kosinski argues, "it was her extraordinary faith and her submission to her confessor's guidance that allowed her to become a champion battler of demons and an expert discerner of spirits" (95).

Chapter 4, "Ermine and her Demons" puts Ermine's demonic visions and visitations into the contexts of late medieval hagiography and the Early Modern witch hunts, arguing that Ermine's demonic visions offer symbolic commentary on the increasingly fraught issues of perception and discernment at the heart of each. Since Ermine's Visions were primarily made up of narratives of demonic encounter, temptation, and persecution, this chapter deals most intimately with the idiosyncrasies and specifics of Ermine's spirituality, showing how "Ermine's steadfast refusal of the demons' advances can be seen on the one hand as an imitation of the ancient desert fathers but on the other as a conscious rejection of what was quickly becoming a determining feature of the 'witch'" (113). As in previous chapters, comparison with other female visionaries who also experienced demonic temptation in sexual form (Christina of Stommeln, Francesca Romana, and Margery Kempe) provides a wealth of helpful context, while analysis of Ermine's visions raises questions about Jean's narrative practices, interpretive efforts, and intervention within Ermine's life as well as her Visions. The fact that Ermine was not an active participant in the authorship of her Visions, combined with the differences between the structure of her Visions and the conventions of late-medieval hagiography, shows that she fits uneasily into broader narratives of late-medieval women both literary and religious, and suggests the need for more nuanced approaches to visionaries, their collaborators, and their texts.

In the final chapter, "Ermine and the Discernment of Spirits," Blumenfeld-Kosinski intervenes most significantly within recent critical discourse. Building on the foundational work of Rosalyn Voaden and subsequent critics, she argues that Ermine and her text were especially relevant to the emerging discourse of discretio spirituum. This chapter in particular will be useful for scholars and students of medieval visionary literature: the clear overview of theoretical and literary discourses of medieval and modern discretio spirituum is incredibly valuable, as are the comparative anecdotes drawn from contemporary visionaries, such as Dorothea of Montau and Francesca Romana, for whom discernment was also a loaded question invested with questions of sanctity and authenticity. Most significantly, Blumenfeld-Kosinski's reading of Ermine's performance of discernment offers a particularly fruitful new critical approach to visionary literature. Her focus on what she terms the "dramatic," rather than the theoretical aspects of discretio spirituum most commonly associated with male clerical authors such as Jean Gerson, reveals a mode of discernment emerging from women's devotional and spiritual practices distinctly at odds with--and yet intimately related to--the production of clerical literature on the subject. Arguing that "discernment is thus essentially a discourse that has to be mastered not only by the clerics charged with examining visionaries and writing about them but by the visionaries themselves," Blumenfeld-Kosinski shows how discernment is inextricably linked to clerical regulation, and allows her to arrive at one of the book's most important insights: that the narrative function of Ermine's many different kinds of visions acted as "a gauge or yardstick for an evaluation of Ermine's discernment capabilities and consequently as a gauge for Ermine's holiness" (131, 143). The chapter ends with a fascinating turn to the works of Jean Gerson that specifically addressed Ermine and her visions, and shows how Gerson's ambivalence toward Ermine (he found her personally praiseworthy but found her text potentially dangerous and recommended that it not be widely circulated) stemmed from the intersection of discretio spirituum and the increasingly fraught issues of swearing, oaths, and perjury during the fourteenth century. By concluding the final chapter of a study devoted to a relatively obscure visionary woman with the work of one of the most famous theologians of the Middle Ages, Blumenfeld-Kosinski herself performs the larger benefits of examining under-studied texts within the broader contexts of their age. She argues that Ermine became a touchstone for Gerson's polemical interventions into the discourse of discretio spirituum, and that by extension she, her text, and her collaborator Jean le Graveur can reveal the limits, boundaries, and formation of ecclesiastical control, clerical oversight, and female spirituality. Yet while both Jean le Graveur and Jean Gerson--and probably even Ermine herself--understood her visionary experiences through the regulatory lens of discretio spirituum, Blumenfeld-Kosinski convincingly demonstrates how the text itself challenges this regulation through generic indeterminacy and subject matter, both showing how at the heart of every regulation lies the potential for exceeding and transgressing it, and reminding us of the scholarly benefits gained from engaging with long-ignored, but critically important texts.

While each chapter in this carefully-crafted study attends to a distinct aspect or legacy of Ermine and her text, chapters 2 and 5 stand out as timely critical interventions that will be particularly useful for medievalists studying women's visionary literature and discretio spirituum. More provocatively, the introduction and epilogue articulate recurring issues--from the modern tendency to pathologize or psychoanalyze medieval visionaries to the afterlives of their texts--within contemporary studies of medieval women, which often (even unconsciously) ascribe different (and differently valued) generic, literary, and devotional qualities and categories to women's visionary texts versus those of their male counterparts. Blumenfeld-Kosinski's nuanced, comparative approach to Ermine's Strange Case opens avenues for future research far beyond any single figure or text; and thanks to this marvelous book, others can take them up for years to come.



1. Sara Poor, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Matthew Kuefler, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

2. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (New York: Random House, 1987).

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