Mirjam de Baar

Building Up an International Spiritual Network: The Correspondence of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)

2010 Seminar Series / Thursday 3 June, 2010


Professor Mirjam de Baar (University of Groningen) explores the epistolary practice and strategies of the seventeenth-century prophet and mystic Antoinette Bourignon. 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. Bourignon’s letters, argues de Baar, were central to this programme; over 600 manuscript versions survive, eleven different printed editions appeared during her lifetime, while nine further volumes were subsequently published posthumously. Her correspondence network 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 spiritual and personal issues, and whose preoccupations and voices are anonymously reproduced in published responses. 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 alongside the spiritual discourse. 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.

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