Leigh Penman

Intellectual Geography and the Making of the ‘First German Philosopher’: Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) and Görlitz

Intellectual Geography / Tuesday 6 September, 2011

The crisis that European, and particularly Lutheran, culture faced during the first third of the seventeenth century engendered many expressions of anger, despair, dissent, and criticism, which were expressed in numerous broadsheets, pamphlets, books, and other publications. But although the works of authors like Wilhelm Eo Neuheuser, Paul Egard, Nicolaus Teting, Valentin Weigel, or even Johann Arndt are preserved today in numerous libraries, the authors themselves are hardly household names. One critic that is well known, however, is the Lusatian cobbler and theosopher Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). This legacy is surprising. He spoke no Latin, did not attend university, and remained a handworker in the Lusatian trading town of Görlitz throughout his life. Prior to his death in 1624, only a single edition of one of his works saw print. And yet, Böhme was the author of an extensive corpus of manuscript works, which drew on complex magical, Paracelsian, Weigelian, and Schwenkfeldian texts and ideas. These appeared posthumously in more than three hundred editions in Latin, Dutch, English, and German, resulting in an enduring international reputation, and praise from figures like Hegel, Newton, and Blake. How did Böhme’s writings attain this prominence from their initial status as dusty manuscripts on a cobbler’s bench in a little German town?

This paper will adopt a spatial approach to this problem by investigating the initial spread of Böhme’s writings in and around Görlitz, concentrating on the concrete local intellectual, political, and religious conditions which influenced the content and the nature of the distribution of Böhme’s work. Drawing on epistolary and archival material, it will challenge several long-standing myths concerning Böhme’s output, and demonstrate how specific and pre-existing geographical, mercantile, political, intellectual, and confessional networks both contributed to and facilitated the transmission of Böhme’s works, as well as their reception. In this way, it attempts to show that intellectual geography, as well as the inherent power and appeal of Böhme’s writing, was crucial to the making of the ‘First German Philosopher’.