(ORDO NEWS) — Hermine de Reims was a humble peasant woman who, in 1384, moved with her elderly husband to the city of Reims in northeastern France from the countryside of Vermandois.
She was a devout woman, described by her confessor Jean le Engraver as “a simple little woman full of good will” who became something of a mystic after her husband’s death, when she went to live in an Augustinian prior with the community of monks to which her confessor belonged.
It was at this time that Hermina’s life took a strange turn and she began to experience night visions of both angelic and demonic visitors, which were painstakingly recorded by le Engraver in all their terrible and fantastical detail.
The strange case of Hermina de Reims was actually not so strange for those who lived in her time.
The constant presence of angels and demons was considered part of the daily life of medieval Western Christianity, and yet the case of Hermine became the source of much controversy and debate in the decades after her death.
The reason for this was much more serious than Ermina herself. The wheels of history were turning in her world, and the era in which she lived was on the verge of great changes, when her very foundations were shaken and chaos reigned.
Hermina’s story is the story of how a simple peasant woman came to play an important role at a turning point in European history.
Feelings and voices: Hermina de Reims and her visions
The torment of Hermina de Reims, according to the records of her visions, began on November 24, 1395 and ended only on August 25, 1396, when she died of the plague, having become infected while caring for a sick neighbor.
Although they can be called “visions”, the encounters with the demons were a much more physical experience than a mere visual perception, they involved all her senses: hearing, smell, touch and even taste, when in one of the episodes she actually licked the demon.
Her visions have all the hallmarks of encounters with demons. By the late Middle Ages, demons were no longer external harbingers of evil, they penetrated into the souls of people and represented their darkest desires, which were both attractive and frightening.
Demons often assumed human form to play the role of seducers, and Ermine often experienced 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 all this the devil did before her, because he wanted her to receive evil pleasure in carnal sin. When they had finished, the young man went to her bedside and said, “Are you not unhappy, killing yourself with fasting, lack of sleep, wearing hair shirts…
It would be much better if you lived a pleasant life and satisfied the appetites of your body, for you can never escape eternal damnation.”
Ermina was also attacked by a real zoo of wild animals, another common theme of medieval encounters with demons.
Her nocturnal visitors ranged from tiny flies that crawled over her body for days, to a house cat with fiery red eyes, seven bats that flew up to her face, a giant dog on her windowsill, along with a huge snake, and even a bear.
Perhaps the most disturbing animal visitors were the toads, with whom she had several encounters. On one occasion, she woke up from a dream to find a toad clinging to her face and putting its head into her mouth.
She got out of bed but slipped on other toads, which disappeared when she sprinkled them with holy water. On another occasion, Ermina was praying in her room and felt three toads moving between her legs.
After their disappearance, she fell asleep, and when she woke up, a demon in the form of a man lay next to her in bed. He also disappeared after being sprinkled with holy water.
Air travel was a common feature of demonic activity in the Middle Ages, and was in fact the forerunner of the early modern idea of witches flying on broomsticks. According to a note made by Jean le Engraver, Hermina experienced physical air travel several times.
In one case, the demon carried her over the inner courtyard of the monastery and threw her in front of the church, and in another, the demons left her on top of the church, where she clung to a stone cross installed on the roof.
Her most shocking journey took her to the forest of Nanteuil. After being kidnapped in the street by three men on black horses and taken into the forest, she found herself in the midst of a huge crowd of demons dressed in black, and found her way home with the help of the appearance of St. Paul the Simple.
Hermina had many divine encounters and was visited by angels and various saints, but some of these visitors were found to be demons who took on angelic forms to deceive her. However, Ermina has always been able to uncover deceit and expose the pretenders.
It was this ability that made her more than a simple peasant woman, and fascinated the theologians of her time, who tried to answer the important question: how to know whether a vision was sent from God or from the devil?
The art of classifying spiritual possessions and distinguishing between the divine and the devil is known as discernment of spirits.
At the end of the 14th century, the attention of theologians to the distinction of spirits intensified due to the fact that Western Christianity underwent a reconfiguration of belief in supernatural forces and their functions.
This upheaval in faith was brought about by a triad of catastrophes: the Black Plague from 1346 to 1353, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France starting in 1337, and the Western Schism from 1378 to 1417, which pitted the French Church against the English Church.
These three major historical events, especially the Schism that created an institutional power vacuum, led to a crisis of faith for many European Christians.
The realm of authenticity has become elusive as evil “doubles” have emerged to confuse and test the validity of Christianity internationally, and one method of dealing with this problem has been spiritual discernment.
The visions of Hermina de Reims were conceived by her confessor as a kind of guide to reflection.
Her experiences have pushed the boundaries of what can be considered holy, and her natural ability to distinguish between the divine and the demonic has made her a living example of insight, the “right mirror” to teach people how to protect themselves from the devil and his minions.
Ermina’s confessor portrayed her as a saint, claiming that in 1397 she performed a posthumous miracle, possessed by a divine spirit, which allowed her to distinguish demons in her visions, even when they appeared in the form of holy people or took part in the Eucharist.
However, the end of the 14th century was a dangerous time for the holy woman in France, as ideas about demonology were changing and the idea that demons were associated with witchcraft began to emerge.
Demons were no longer simply agents of evil meant to test the firmness of faith, but they could enter the human body (voluntarily or involuntarily) and be exorcised as well (systematized institutional exorcism began after the early 15th century).
It is for this reason that the discernment of spirits has become so important, not only for the person experiencing a supernatural encounter, but also for society in general and at the official level – for church authorities.
Ermina was able to distinguish the diabolical from the divine due to her strength of faith and participation in the spiritual practice of the Augustinian friars.
On a societal level, the distinction became more difficult: In 1401, Jean le Engraver gave the recording of Hermine’s visions to Jean Gerson, an influential theologian and rector of the University of Paris, who set himself up as a kind of expert on the supernatural.
Gerson’s initial judgment was cautiously positive, although he advised against disseminating the visions except to those who could discern what was holy and what was not.
Gerson applied the same principles of distinction in 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 fine line between divine mysticism and demonic sorcery was blurred, and the symptoms that a person suffering from one disease or another manifested were almost identical: levitation, prophecy, speaking in tongues, trances, or unusual bodily signs.
To distinguish one from the other, one had to have extensive knowledge of the mechanics of spiritual possession and the complex theology that has developed over more than a millennium.
Intangibility and the Possession Theory
In the 13th century, ideas about demonology and angelology changed in such a way that the idea of non-materiality became the dominant theory.
During the preceding millennium, Augustine’s idea that angels and demons have incorporeal bodies had been the dominant theory, but around the 1230s Aquinas’ ideology gained more ground.
Aquinas believed in the absolute immateriality of supernatural substances, but his rationale allowed 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).
However, the immaterial theory created some new difficulties, such as how non-material beings can produce effects in the physical realm without the use of a physical body, and the struggle to solve this theological problem is evident in Ermine’s visions.
“They say that demons are made of nothing, but at this very moment I roll them like balls right in front of me,” Ermina said.
However, one of the ways for non-material beings to fulfill their will in the physical sphere was the spiritual possession of a person. There are several types of possession that a person can experience.
In the case of Ermina, she was both possessed by a Divine spirit and involuntarily demonic possessed, and such a person (energumen) was different from those who voluntarily acted as a demonic medium (pythoness), or witches who voluntarily copulated with demons in the form of incubi.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that all spiritual possessions occur through literal penetration into the body. Once inside, the alien spirit interacted with the internal physiology of the body – organs, mind and spirit.
The human spirit existed inside the body in the form of a purified liquid substance produced in the left ventricle of the heart from the air, which was considered the habitat of the human spirit and soul. Perhaps this is where the popular expression “with all my heart” comes from.
Once out of the heart, the spiritus moved through the body through the arteries and could transform into a “natural” spirit residing in the liver, which controlled involuntary activities such as digestion and sexual activity.
He could also purify and transform into an “animal” spirit (named for the soul, anima) by ascending to 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 had the ability to replace the human spirit with the supernatural, so the only kind of spiritual possession that could inhabit the heart was of divine origin.
Although the demons could not possess the immaterial soul, they could disrupt the human spirit’s function as an information conduit between the body and the soul and its control over the senses, which gave them the opportunity to confuse or tempt the soul, and this is how Ermina’s demonic possession manifested itself in her visions.
The physiological model of possession did not provide a clear basis for discerning spirits, but it was useful in some cases.
The location of the spirit in the body determined whether it was divine or diabolical: for example, demons were believed to reside in the visceral or “impure” parts of the body, so during an exorcism the spirit could be expelled from the body by regurgitating a hard object such as a toad or a worm, or even a piece of coal, indicating demonic possession.
Conversely, signs of divine possession could sometimes be found on the body, as, for example, during the autopsy of Claire of Montefalco, the imprint of a crucifix was found on her heart.
Although the importance of Hermina’s visions was not immediately apparent, her experiences were in fact a crucial part of a huge turning point in the history of Christianity.
Jean le Engraver’s recording of her visions challenged the theologians of the day, who at the time were struggling with changes in the founding principles of their faith.
Hermina’s experience embodied many aspects of the crisis of faith facing Western Christianity caused by the triple calamity of plague, war and papal schism, and the reception her visions received demonstrates the process of change brought about by this tumultuous era.
The decades following Hermina’s death saw the creation of a new demonology and new ideas about mysticism, which formed the basis of the Malleus Maleficarum ideology and the early modern witch hunts.
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