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Seminar 6: The Correspondence of Antoinette Bourignon


Discussions continue with Professor de Baar during the wine reception.

In the sixth installment of the Project’s seminar series on Thursday 3 June, Professor Mirjam de Baar (University of Groningen) described the epistolary practice and strategies of a seventeenth-century female prophet and mystic in a paper entitled ‘The Re-construction of a Spiritual Network: The Correspondence of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)’. From her base in Amsterdam (where she purchased her own press in the late 1660s), Bourignon used a variety of textual media to disseminate the message that she was a spiritual leader – ‘The Mother’ – chosen by God to restore true Christianity on earth, and to consolidate a following around this ecumenical identity. Bourignon’s letters, argued de Baar, were central to this programme; over 600 manuscript versions survive (both originals and scribal copies), eleven different printed editions appeared during her lifetime, while nine further volumes were subsequently published posthumously. Her correspondents included luminaries such as Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), and Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), as well as a wide range of socially diverse disciples who wrote to her seeking advice on a variety of spiritual and personal issues, and whose preoccupations and voices are anonymously reproduced in published responses. In consequence, her letters have a dialogic, polyphonous quality, while the same followers who wrote to her seeking guidance in turn represented an important market for the letters in their printed manifestations, suggesting a close relationship between epistolarity and the mechanics of early modern publishing, and the existence of a shrewd business model beneath the spiritual discourse (a point further underlined during subsequent discussion). Despite her failure to establish a long-term community on the island of Nordstrand, and the fact that in the later years of her life the suspicions of Lutheran clergy forced her into exile in Eastern Friesland, Bourignon maintained a prolific output of letters, and continued to combine the roles of spiritual leader, publisher of epistolary collections, and manager of what might be interpreted as a spiritually driven commercial enterprise. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future seminars in the series, please see here.

Podcast now available on the seminar page!