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Hérésies et dissidences féminines

Conflicting Discourses on Female Dissent in the Early Modern Period: The Case of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)

Mirjam de Baar

Résumé

Quelles sont donc les bases de l'identification plus ou moins évidente d'un certain type – considéré comme acceptable et reconnu au début des Temps modernes – de religiosité au fanatisme, voire à l'hystérie, qui semble d'autant plus évidente lorsqu'il s'agit d'un prophète féminin ? La prophétesse du dix-septième siècle Antoinette Bourignon est à cet égard un cas très intéressant, parce que, immédiatement après sa mort en 1680, une lutte acharnée éclata entre deux intellectuels de premier plan, Pierre Poiret et Pierre Bayle, tous les deux théologiens, sur la question de la signification qu'il fallait attribuer à sa vie et à son œuvre. Poiret faisait partie des disciples les plus fidèles de Bourignon et il se battit, après la mort de celle-ci, pour publier un recueil de ses œuvres et inscrire son ancien guide spirituel dans une tradition mystico-théologique. L'accent était mis chez lui sur la femme pieuse qui était si réceptive à l'illumination divine et qui pouvait apporter un soutien spirituel aux âmes craignant Dieu grâce à sa connaissance et à son amour de Dieu. Bayle par contre ne pouvait voir en Bourignon qu'un charlatan et la traiter qu'avec défiance et suspicion. En fait, il s'agissait ici de deux discours diamétralement opposés sur la « dissidence féminine ». L'un (la vision de Poiret) finit à terme par avoir le dessous au profit de l'autre (le jugement de Bayle).
Le fait que Bayle a pu explicitement marquer de son empreinte la perception historique de Bourignon, peut être attribué à l'autorité qui fut accordée à son Dictionnaire au sein de l'histoire intellectuelle. Mais ce fut justement aussi l'identification d'auteurs éclairés ultérieurs avec l'aversion de Bayle pour ce qu'il qualifiait d'« enthousiasme » et avec ses normes implicites de la féminité, qui fit que son jugement ou plus exactement son préjugé contre Bourignon continua à se répercuter également à long terme sur la perception historique autour de sa personne. La conséquence de tout cela fut que, jusqu'à une période avancée du vingtième siècle, Bourignon eut la réputation d'être une illuminée et une hystérique. Des termes qui négligent complètement son influence, car en la disqualifiant sur la base de son sexe ou de la structure de sa personnalité, la question de savoir pourquoi à l'époque un groupe de chrétiens appartenant à des sectes diverses fut prêt à reconnaître Bourignon comme un guide religieux, disparaît complètement à l'arrière-plan. Cette question a formé pour moi le point de départ de l'écriture d'une nouvelle biographie de Bourignon (« Ik moet spreken. » Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon) [« Je dois parler ». Le leadership spirituel d'Antoinette Bourignon].
Dans ma biographie de Bourignon, j'ai opté pour une approche contextuelle combinée à une analyse raisonnée de sa vie et de son œuvre. Chaque vie – et c’est également le cas de celle de Bourignon - est imbriquée dans la culture. Cela semble être une constatation évidente. C'est pourtant justement cette conviction qui fait défaut dans toutes les études antérieures consacrées à Bourignon. Celles-ci étaient basées à chaque fois sur l'aspect anormal, atypique ou particulier de son apparition. Bourignon peut bien avoir été unique, des contemporains l'ont cependant identifiée et reconnue comme l'instrument de Dieu qu'elle prétendait être. Il est donc possible de parler à cet égard d'une autodéfinition et d'une individuation réussies. Cela soulève la question de savoir comment une femme du dix-septième siècle comme Antoinette Bourignon, sans la moindre formation théologique formelle mais aussi sans dissimuler ou nier son sexe, a pu, dans le cadre d'action qui était à sa disposition, fonctionner comme un guide spirituel. La réponse à cette question se trouve en fait déjà chez Poiret, mais pour comprendre pourquoi la question elle-même n'a jamais été posée plus tôt, c'est à Bayle qu'il faut nous adresser.

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Introduction

  • 1  Review of Luuc Kooijmans, Gevaarlijke kennis. Inzicht en angst in de dagen van Jan Swammerdam (Ams (...)
  • 2  For Bourignon, see (in alphabetic order) Mirjam de Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’. Het spiritueel leiders (...)
  • 3 Cf. Mirjam de Baar, ‘Jan Swammerdam in de ban van Antoinette Bourignon. Historische beeldvorming te (...)

1The most prestigious Dutch newspaper, the liberal NRC, recently ran a review of a new book about the seventeenth-century scientist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), who garnered posthumous fame for his Biblia Naturae– The Book of Nature (1737-1738).1 For several years Swammerdam was utterly in thrall to the prophetess and mystic Antoinette Bourignon.2 If you engage with Swammerdam, you will inevitably encounter Bourignon. What is striking is that the reviewer concluded that in the seventeenth century ‘faith and science had everything to do with one another’, but did not take this insight to its logical conclusion in explaining Swammerdam’s motives for joining Bourignon in 1675. What he did do was trot out unquestioningly the stock image of Bourignon, describing her in the first paragraph as ‘a fanatical and domineering zealot’. These are the sort of epithets applied to Bourignon in earlier biographies of Swammerdam by writers who were insufficiently aware of the inextricable tangling of science and religion and were only able to speak of female prophets in terms of gender stereotypes.3 Judgements like these, which are presented as self-evident, sell both Bourignon and Swammerdam short. Bourignon was one of the first people in the seventeenth century to try to transcend the boundaries between the different denominations by working to create an ecumenical congregation avant la lettre. The quest for such an ideal in an age when mounting sectarianism was demarcating the dividing lines between the various religious communities ever more sharply may well have held a particular appeal for an experimental researcher like Swammerdam. And even if he was concerned solely with something to grasp hold of and an avenue to God, we are left to wonder why he sought refuge with Bourignon rather than any other of the many prophets who caused a stir in the seventeenth century.

  • 4 For Poiret, see Marjolaine Chevallier, Pierre Poiret (1646-1719). Du protestantisme à la mystique. (...)

2What is the basis for this more or less automatic identification of a certain type of religiosity – acceptable and recognized in the early modern period – with zealotry, even hysteria, which seems all the more self-evident where a female prophet is concerned? Antoinette Bourignon is a very interesting case in this regard because immediately after her death in 1680 a furious dispute flared up between two eminent intellectuals, Pierre Poiret (1646-1719) and Pierre Bayle (1647-1709), both theologians, on the issue of the significance that had to be accorded to her life and work.4 In fact, this was a matter of two diametrically opposed arguments about female dissent. In the end one (Poiret’s view) lost out to the other (Bayle’s opinion). So what was it that caused the negative association of femaleness with a particular type of ‘dissent’ to prevail?

Pierre Poiret’s interpretation of Antoinette Bourignon’s life and works

  • 5  Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, April 1685 (‘article IX’) and May 1685 (‘article VIII’), r (...)
  • 6  He also sent a summary of her works to Le Journal de Leipsic (Jan. 1686), p. 9.

3As one of Bourignon’s disciples, Pierre Poiret wanted to keep her memory and the memory of her ideas alive. He organized the publication of her collected works by the renowned Amsterdam publisher H. Wetstein in 1686, wrote her biography and systematized her thinking. To bring the integrated edition of her writings to the attention of the intellectual reading public, Poiret placed pre-publication notices in authoritative journals, giving brief details of Bourignon’s life and work. In 1685, for instance, he published two pieces about her in Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, Pierre Bayle’s journal.5 In March 1686 he put an announcement of the publication of Bourignon’s Oeuvres in the ‘Livres nouveaux’ column of the same journal.6

  • 7  See Joy Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon jugées par Bayle’, in: Wolfgang Leiner (...)
  • 8  The anonymous author of a late nineteenth-century study on Bourignon even stated that Bayle had gi (...)

4 Bayle did not interfere with the content of Poiret’s articles, but made it quite clear in his introductory remarks that he had no time for Bourignon’s notions. He wrote of her ‘pensées fort singuliers’, of that ‘espèce de Secte’ and of ‘l’étrange et l’étonnante variété’.7 Bayle did make room for Bourignon in the first edition of his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), but he used the article in question to pronounce an annihilating judgement on her.8

  • 9  For the analogy with the hagiographic models, see Willem Frijhoff, Heiligen, idolen, iconen (Nijme (...)

5The edition of Bourignon’s works compiled by Poiret can be seen as a conscious effort on his part to position the leader he so admired in a mystical-theological tradition. In this connection, volumes I and II of Bourignon’s œuvres, in particular, are deserving of closer scrutiny. Under a single title and without revealing his own name, Poiret brought together in these volumes her autobiographical writings and the apologia and biography he had written. The whole served to introduce and, more importantly, to legitimate the figure of Bourignon and her works. The title Poiret gave the first two volumes of Bourignon’s collected works was La vie de Damlle. Antoinette Bourignon. Ecrite partie par elle-méme, partie par une personne de sa connoissance (1683). Implicit in this title is a clear reference to the medieval vitae of nuns or saints and to the hagiographic genre. A classic feature of this genre is that a privileged witness, someone who is able to combine profound empathy with the holy woman or saint in question with a degree of objectivity, recounts the story of the exemplar’s life.9 Poiret must have felt that he stood in just such a relationship to Bourignon. In the biography he included in La vie de Antoinette Bourignon he rewrote the story of her life by adding new details and – more than she herself had ever done – giving all sorts of events a symbolic explanation. In his view, her whole life was informed by the divine enlightenment imparted to her as an innocent and unlettered virgin. He had come to know her as the divine light that carried people on earth back to Jesus Christ and from there to God himself. In short, Poiret set himself up as the biographer who authorized Bourignon’s experiences and explained them to the readers, so that they would know God’s purpose in sending her and be uplifted by it.

  • 10  Cf. Willem Frijhoff, ‘Autodidaxies, xvie-xixe siècles. Jalons pour la construction d’un objet hist (...)
  • 11  [Pierre Poiret], ‘Geheele leven Van Mejuffr. Antoinette Bourignon. Van haar geboorte hervat, en to (...)
  • 12 Ibidem, p. 269.

6By underlining Bourignon’s lack of education and contrasting her knowledge and love of God with the erudition and vanity of the doctors of the church, Poiret made Bourignon a prototype of the ‘theodidact’ he admired.10 In his view Bourignon, ‘a simple daughter’ with her knowledge inspired by the Holy Spirit, rivalled all the constantly disputing theologians and the movements they espoused.11If one of the church fathers had written what Bourignon had produced, people would almost ‘worship’ his work, asserted Poiret. But because the author was a woman, it was assumed that it did not amount to much. He, though, would like to see someone show him ‘in any one of all the books by all the world’s scholars’ anything that could come close to Bourignon’s work.12

  • 13  [Pierre Poiret], ‘Een verdedigende Voorreden, rakende de Persoon en Leer van Mejuffr. Bourignon [o (...)

7In his apologetic introduction to Bourignon’s oeuvre, Poiret contended that it bore witness to great wisdom and knowledge precisely because it was written by a woman. This reasoning did not, though, imply that he was disputing essentialist notions about the female sex. He, too, believed that women were by nature more compliant, more impressionable and more passive than men. But it followed from this, Poiret argued, that they had an advantage over men. Their nature made them more receptive to divine enlightenment. The fact that women were not as learned as men was another advantage, in Poiret’s view, because it meant that they were not encumbered by idle, false metaphysical speculation.13 Referring to St Paul, Poiret observed that by choosing the foolish and the weak, God wanted to shame the wise and the strong.

8Poiret parried any criticism of Bourignon’s sex and hence of her authority by embedding all the arguments she had adduced during her lifetime in a systematic, profound and erudite structure. He also drew his readers’ notice to a whole series of biblical and historical exemplars. Weak as the female sex might be, he asserted, throughout the centuries there had always been women who had proved that they did not lack the powers needed for even the greatest matters - one had only to think, he pointed out, of Moses’s sister, Samuel’s mother, the prophetess Hulda, Deborah, Judith, the Virgin Mary, Blandina, Joan of Arc and Teresa of Avila. Teresa of Avila, canonized in 1622, was a prime example. Her saintliness and authority were beyond question.

9It is striking that Poiret made no attempt to gloss over Bourignon’s sex - on the contrary, he stressed it. He specifically presented her as a female author and described her texts as the writings of a woman. His estimation of the female element could be an indication that something new was crystallizing here. In Poiret’s case, however, the emphasis was not on the learned woman but on the pious woman who was utterly receptive to divine enlightenment and who, thanks to her knowledge and love of God, could provide spiritual succour to God-fearing souls.

  • 14  According to Chevallier, Pierre Poiret, p. 53, note 43, the original drawing by Poiret is deposite (...)

10In view of the image of Bourignon that Poiret wanted to convey, the portrait engraving he designed, based on his own drawing, is also significant. Poiret included it by way of a frontispiece in the first volume of her collected work.14

Antoinette Bourignon, Portrait (from a drawing by Pierre Poiret), engraving made for the edition of her collected works (1686)

  • 15  Taken in the semantic meaning Frijhoff uses in his Heiligen, idolen, iconen, p. 52-53.
  • 16  For Madame de Miramion, see Elizabeth Rapley, The Dévotes. Women and church in seventeenth-century (...)

In it Bourignon’s face is more or less obscured by her black headdress, so that it seems much more like an icon than a realistic portrait.15 We do not know whether Poiret deliberately made use of a specific form of representation in order to transform his spiritual leader into a reliable and contemporary religious female type, but he certainly cannot have been ignorant of the books of illustrations of the costumes of the different religious communities that were published during this period. He may also have take his inspiration from the portraits of the French women who founded religious communities - women like Madame de Miramion, who established a religious community, the Miramionnes, in Paris in 1661, and Madame du Buc, one of the first mothers superior of the Soeurs de la Providence of Rouen.16

  • 17 Later, in his contribution toNouvelles de la Republique des LettresMay 1685 (‘article VIII’) Poiret (...)
  • 18  [Poiret], Verdedigende Voorreden, p. 73.

11Poiret also took upon himself the task of systematizing Bourignon’s body of ideas. He made it clear at the outset that she had never wanted to found a sect.17In his apology he also exonerated Bourignon of the charge of Socinianism, that she had denied the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ. He stressed that Bourignon’s writings were about one thing, and one thing only: ‘Divine love and the approach to it by renouncing the self, worldly goods and sin’.18 To Poiret’s mind, her ideas made her a true representative of mystical theology, the doctrine of spiritual perfection.

  • 19  Cf. Jean Orcibal, ‘Les spirituels français et espagnols chez John Wesley et ses contemporains’, in (...)
  • 20  Among those who made a stand against Poiret in this question was Johann Wolfgang Jäger (1647-1720) (...)
  • 21 Otger Steggink and Kees Waaijman, Spiritualiteit en mystiek, I Inleiding (Nijmegen 1985), p. 27.
  • 22  Cf. Michael Heyd, ‘Be sober and reasonable’. The critique of enthusiasm in the seventeenth and ear (...)

12Later Poiret systematized ‘mystic theology’ which, unlike ‘dogmatic theology’, concentrated on the relational aspects of Christian thinking. He himself spoke in this regard of the ‘Théologie du Coeur’ and announced that orthodoxy, ‘ou croyance juste et solide’, was only a ‘mince part de la religion’, if it was part of it at all.19 As the champion of mystic theology, however, he was labouring for a cause that, because of the changing religious climate, was treated with suspicion and abhorrence.20 Towards the end of the seventeenth century mysticism actually became a suspect term in theological and church circles,21 and individuals and religious groups who relied on divine inspiration were increasingly associated with ‘enthusiasm’, which similarly acquired a pejorative connotation from the end of the seventeenth century.22 At the same time, Quietism was being fiercely opposed in a country like France, as we can see from the fate of Madame Guyon, who was actually imprisoned. Poiret’s unflagging zeal in systematizing Bourignon’s (and Guyon’s) ideas and integrating them in mystic theology ran counter to the growing trends towards rationalization in Protestant and Catholic theology. In time his attempts to systematize Bourignon’s thinking may actually have led to the marginalizing of her ideas. On the other hand, it did mean that Bourignon, who had never worked out a doctrine, acquired a place in the history of theology. It is doubtful that she would ever have had this honour conferred upon her were it not for Poiret’s efforts.

Pierre Bayle’s judgement on Antoinette Bourignon

  • 23  P. Bayle, Dictionaire historique et critique (2 vols., Rotterdam 1697) I, p. 645-651. For this pap (...)
  • 24  For Bayle’s aversion to prophets, see Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, II, p. 146; J. Solé, ‘Religion et v (...)
  • 25  Charnley, ‘La vie et l’oeuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 447-452. The following is in broad outli (...)

13Bayle based his entry on Bourignon in the Dictionnaire historique et critique on, among other things, Poiret’s biography of Bourignon. But whereas Poiret praised her to the skies over hundreds of pages, Bayle excoriated her in five.23 He did it not by openly criticizing her but by adopting a rather mocking tone and focusing attention on inconsistencies in her pronouncements and on the discrepancy between her ideas and her actions. This was so flagrant in a number of respects that it was not difficult to pass a negative judgement on Bourignon. The fact that Bayle deliberately set out to do this had much to do with his aversion to anything that tended towards ‘enthusiasm’.24 But according to Joy Charnley, who devoted an article to Bayle’s perception of Bourignon, his ‘misogyny’ was also an important factor.25

  • 26  Bayle, Dictionnaire I, p. 639 and explanatory notes B, p. 639-640: ‘Elle était douée d’une chastet (...)
  • 27 Ibidem, explanatory notes C, p. 640.
  • 28 Ibidem, explanatory notes D, p. 641.

14In his entry on Bourignon, Bayle introduced her as one of those devoted women ‘qui croient être conduites par des inspirations particulières’. This was why, said Bayle, she was painted as a ‘fanatic’. He told his readers that she had published a great many works that were full of very perverse dogma. In his brief biography Bayle made much of Bourignon’s ‘remarkable chastity’ and her ugliness.26 Might she have remained a virgin because she was so ugly? Or was this chastity due to the capacity that the Holy Virgin had had of making everyone in her vicinity pure? Bayle spoke in this context of ‘virginité pénétrative’ and reminded readers that ‘notre Antoinette’ had not always possessed this power. Had various gentlemen not asked her to marry them, sometimes with threats? After her flight from her parents’ house she had fallen into the clutches of soldiers against whom she had had to defend herself, for, said Bayle with great flair for a pun, ‘les gens de guerre ... sont fort dangereux pour une semblable proie, et peu pénétrable à la virginité pénétrative’.27 Thus he ridiculed her so fiercely defended chastity. Perhaps Antoinette, he also wrote, did not regret having informed the public ‘qu’elle avoit paru si aimable à quelques hommes’. Hypocrites, he suggested, can sometimes conceal their blandishments behind ‘les apparances de la théologie la plus mystique et la plus illuminée’.28

  • 29 Ibidem, explanatory notes I, p. 642, where Bayle refers to her refusal of the cooperation with Jean (...)

15Bayle went on to suggest to his readers that Bourignon was a prickly woman, who sought to justify even her tantrums and bad temper by ascribing them to her desire for righteousness. She would not tolerate a ‘compagnon’ or ‘collègue’ and was totally cold to anyone who wanted to care for her even a little.29 Bayle repeatedly focuses on her miserliness, a characteristic which, he asserted, did not sit well with her professed role of prophetess and with the disengagement from worldly goods she preached. Her inheritance? It did not shrink once she got her hands on it - on the contrary, it increased in magnitude. Here Bayle cited Bourignon’s own words when she said that she worked only to serve God better, but that she could never find any truly poor people so she could never give alms. This statement provoked Bayle to comment:

  • 30 Ibidem, explanatory notes E, p. 641.

Ceux qui l’accusent de Fanatisme choisiront fort mal leurs preuves, s’ils alléguaient celles-là. Il n’y a rien ici qui sente le visionnaire et le fanatique: tout y sent un esprit adroit, et qui raisonne très-finement.30

  • 31 Ibidem, explanatory notes M, p. 642.
  • 32 Ibidem, p. 643.
  • 33  In the first edition of his Dictionnaire Bayle expressed his indignation over this miscalculation (...)
  • 34  Bayle, Dictionnaire I, p. 72-75: ‘Adam’, explanatory notes G (p. 73-74); Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œu (...)

16With savage irony Bayle undermined the image of herself that Bourignon had so carefully constructed. He portrayed her as a shrewd woman who did not hesitate to wheedle money out of her followers when necessary.31 Bayle also took issue with the author of Bourignon’s Vie when he said that her birth and death were marked by the appearance of comets. In his view this was a reason to regard her as ‘un fléau de la providence’ rather than ‘une sainte prophétesse’.32 In his view she was no prophetess, for what value could one attach to a prophecy of an event that was supposedly about to happen, but did not in fact occur for another twenty-nine years? Bayle was referring here to the destruction of the city of Brussels, which Bourignon announced was imminent in 1666 but which did not actually take place until 1695.33 Bayle barely touched on Bourignon’s religious ideas, dismissing them as being totally without system or structure. He did, though, refer in his article to her views in so far as they concerned Adam’s androgyny and the development of the two sexes after the Fall.34

  • 35 Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 449-450. She refers to the second edition (...)
  • 36  Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 450-452.

17Bayle’s commentary resounds with contempt for the woman whose ideas were so opposed to his own, ideas that he doubtless associated with superstition and irrationalism. In other works, among them his Pensées Diverses (1683), Bayle raged against people who believed that comets were sent by God as warnings or placed their trust in so-called prophets and their divine messages. Bayle did not confine himself to Christendom - he saw examples of these ‘folles visions’ all over the world. Bourignon must have seemed to him, so Charnley believes, a prime example of their presence in Europe.35 Charnley also takes the view, however, that his hostility towards her stemmed not solely from his profound distrust of anyone who claimed to be inspired by and in direct contact with God, but also from his attitude to women. He expected a particular form of conduct from women, a particular virtuousness. Bourignon clearly did not meet this standard. To his mind her life contained countless reprehensible elements: her refusal to marry, her opposition to her father, her desire to be free, her determination to stand up to authority, her self-publicizing activities and, above all, her ideas which, believed Bayle, were an incitement to superstition and fanaticism.36

  • 37  ‘Emic and etic are terms used by anthropologists, and by others in the social and behavioural scie (...)
  • 38  ‘Etic’ is the view from the outside, relying on its own set of criteria to judge the system. An ‘e (...)

18In a nutshell, Bayle was diametrically opposed to Poiret in his opinion of Bourignon’s thinking and his opinion of her as a person. Where one man saw her as a spirit enlightened by God, had boundless faith in her gifts and ascribed to her the purest of intentions and motives, the other could see her as nothing but a charlatan and treat her with mistrust and suspicion. That Poiret’s idea of her can be regarded as an ‘emic’ point of view is evident.37 He expressed the standpoint of the faithful and dedicated disciple. And at first sight it would seem that by including Bourignon in his Dictionnaire and classifying her as a fanatic Bayle was voicing an ‘etic’ viewpoint.38 His judgement, however, was coloured to a significant extent by his enlightened religious convictions and his normative views of desirable female behaviour, so it was in no way culturally neutral. In fact, he was elaborating on the criticism of Bourignon’s life and work that her opponents had aired during her lifetime, although in their cases it was not a matter of their dislike of superstition or irrationalism. It was Bourignon’s emphasis on believers’ own responsibility, her insistence that their salvation depended on their own Christian way of life, not on their membership of a particular church, that contemporary theologians and ministers could not tolerate. They saw it as a direct assault on their own authority, church order and theological doctrine.

Towards a new approach of Antoinette Bourignon’s life and works

  • 39  His Dictionnaire has gone through several editions. The first edition was published in 1697 (2 vol (...)
  • 40  Mirjam de Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken.’ Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)(...)

19Bayle’s ability to leave an unmistakable mark on the image that has built up around Bourignon can be attributed to the authority accorded to his Dictionnaire in intellectual history.39 But to my mind that was certainly not the only reason. It was precisely the identification of later enlightenment authors with Bayle’s aversion to what he branded ‘enthusiasm’ and with his implicit norms of femaleness which meant that his opinion of, or more accurately his prejudice against Bourignon had an enduring, insidious effect on the historical perception of her as a figure. The consequence of all this is that until well into the twentieth century Bourignon continued to be described as a zealot and condemned in terms that we now call gender-specific. Terms, too, that utterly overlook her influence, for disqualifying her on the grounds of her sex or her personality begged the question as to why a group of Christians of various denominations - among them major figures like Poiret en Swammerdam, Boyle and Comenius - was prepared to acknowledge Bourignon as a religious leader. This question was my starting point for writing a new biography of Bourignon, which has now been published in Dutch under the title ‘Ik moet spreken.’ Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) (‘I must speak.’ The spiritual leadership of Antoinette Bourignon 1616-1680).40

  • 41  For a historiographical overview of the developments in biographical studies, see Hans Erich Bödek (...)

20In my biography of Bourignon I opted for a contextual approach combined with a considered analysis of her life and work. Every life, Bourignon’s included, is embedded in the culture. That would seem to be a self-evident statement. And yet it is precisely this insight that is lacking in all the previous studies devoted to Bourignon, which focused on the anomalous, atypical or extraordinary aspects of her character.41 Bourignon may have been unique, but contemporaries recognized and acknowledged her as the instrument of God she claimed to be. In that regard, we can identify successful self-definition and self-realization. This raises the question as to how a seventeenth-century woman like Antoinette Bourignon, with no formal theological education and without concealing or denying her sex, was able to function as a religious leader within the field of action available to her. The answer to this question can, in fact, be found in Poiret, but we must turn to Bayle to understand why the question itself has never been asked before.

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Notes

1  Review of Luuc Kooijmans, Gevaarlijke kennis. Inzicht en angst in de dagen van Jan Swammerdam (Amsterdam 2007), in: NRC, ‘Boeken’ (Books), 01.02.2008. Cf. Jan Blokker, ‘Het verstand, of toch ook nog een beetje God?’, in: NRC, Boeken, 04.01.2008. In his review of Kooijmans’ work on Swammerdam Blokker characterized Bourignon rather condescendingly as a ‘bigot lady’, who ‘particularly by herself was considered to be a chosen prophet’.

2  For Bourignon, see (in alphabetic order) Mirjam de Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’. Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) (Zutphen 2004); John Björkhem, Antoinette Bourignon. Till den svärmiska religiositetens historia och psykologi (Stockholm 1940); Claude Louis-Combet, Mère des vrais croyants. Mythobiographie d'Antoinette Bourignon (Paris 1983); Marthe van der Does, Antoinette Bourignon. Sa vie (1616-1680) - son oeuvre (Dissertation University of Groningen 1974); Leszek Kolakowski, ‘Antoinette Bourignon. La mystique égocentrique’, in: idem, Chrétiens sans Église. La conscience religieuse et le lien confessionel au XVIIe siècle [1965] (2nd. ed., Paris 1987), p. 640-718; Antonius von der Linde, Antoinette Bourignon. Das Licht der Welt (Leiden 1895); Alex. R. MacEwen, Antoinette Bourignon. Quietist (London 1910); Xenia von Tippelskirch, ‘Antoinette Bourignon. Légitimation et condamnation de la vie mystique dans l’écriture (auto)biographique: enjeux historiographiques’, in: Jean-Claude Arnould and Sylvie Steinberg (ed.), Les femmes et l'écriture de l'histoire (1400-1800) (Rouen 2008), p. 231-248.

3 Cf. Mirjam de Baar, ‘Jan Swammerdam in de ban van Antoinette Bourignon. Historische beeldvorming ter discussie’, in: Tijdschrift voor Vrouwenstudies 63 (1995), p. 316-333.

4 For Poiret, see Marjolaine Chevallier, Pierre Poiret (1646-1719). Du protestantisme à la mystique. Histoire et sociéte 26 (Geneva 1994) and Max Wieser, Petrus Poiret. Der Vater der romanischen Mystik in Deutschland zum Ursprung der Romantik in Deutschland (München 1932). For Bayle, see Elisabeth Labrousse, Pierre Bayle (2 vols., The Hague 1963-1964). In 1675 Bayle, who was at that time still a professor in philosophy in Sedan, had published against Poiret his Objectiones primae in libros quatuor de Deo, anima et malo, cum responsionibus authoris.

5  Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, April 1685 (‘article IX’) and May 1685 (‘article VIII’), reproduced in: Pierre Bayle, œuvres diverses (reprographic reprint, 5 vols., Hildesheim 1965-1982), I, p. 269-272 and 290. See for Bayle’s journal, Hubert Bost, Un ‘intellectuel’ avant la lettre: le journaliste Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). L’actualité religieuse dans les ‘Nouvelles de la République des Lettres’ (1684-1687) (Amsterdam, Maarssen 1994). Cf. for Poiret’s ‘intervention’, Von Tippelskirch, ‘Antoinette Bourignon’.

6  He also sent a summary of her works to Le Journal de Leipsic (Jan. 1686), p. 9.

7  See Joy Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon jugées par Bayle’, in: Wolfgang Leiner (ed.), Papers on French seventeenth-century literature XXI, nr. 41 (1994), p. 443-452, at p. 447.

8  The anonymous author of a late nineteenth-century study on Bourignon even stated that Bayle had given her the final blow with his ‘assertions ironiques’, see E.S., Étude sur Antoinette Bourignon. La prophétesse des derniers temps (Paris 1876), ‘Introduction’, p. 7. According to Van der Does, Antoinette Bourignon, p. 77, note 60, these initials ‘E.S.’ were used as a cover by one Mademoiselle Wild.

9  For the analogy with the hagiographic models, see Willem Frijhoff, Heiligen, idolen, iconen (Nijmegen 1998), pp. 7-38.

10  Cf. Willem Frijhoff, ‘Autodidaxies, xvie-xixe siècles. Jalons pour la construction d’un objet historique’, in: Histoire de l’éducation, 70 (1996), pp. 5-27; Michel de Certeau, La Fable mystique xvie-xviie siècle (Paris 1982), ‘L’illettré éclairé’, p. 280-329.

11  [Pierre Poiret], ‘Geheele leven Van Mejuffr. Antoinette Bourignon. Van haar geboorte hervat, en tot aan haar doot vervolgt’ [original ‘La VieContinuee de Damlle. Antoinette Bourignon. Reprise depuis sa naissance, & suivie jusqu’à sa mort], in: Het Leven van Juffr. Antoinette Bourignon (Amsterdam: Jan Rieuwertsz en Pieter Arentsz, 1683), p. 261.

12 Ibidem, p. 269.

13  [Pierre Poiret], ‘Een verdedigende Voorreden, rakende de Persoon en Leer van Mejuffr. Bourignon [original ‘Une Préface Apologétique, touchant la personne & la Doctrine de Mlle. Bourignon’], in: Het Leven van Juffr. Antoinette Bourignon, p. 26.

14  According to Chevallier, Pierre Poiret, p. 53, note 43, the original drawing by Poiret is deposited in Franeker. Upon inquiry at the municipal archive of Franeker and at the Franeker Museum Martena (formerly Museum ’t Coopmanshûs), it appeared that the location of the drawing is unknown.

15  Taken in the semantic meaning Frijhoff uses in his Heiligen, idolen, iconen, p. 52-53.

16  For Madame de Miramion, see Elizabeth Rapley, The Dévotes. Women and church in seventeenth-century France (Montreal, Kingston, London, Buffalo 1990, paperback 1993), p. 96-100. In Rapley’s work one can find portrait engravings of Madame de Miramion and Madame du Buc. Rapley notes that their dresses resemble that of other maîtresses charitables and of respectable women of the bourgeoisie.

17 Later, in his contribution toNouvelles de la Republique des LettresMay 1685 (‘article VIII’) Poiret emphasized this again: ‘on voit dans les Livres de cette Demoiselle des légions de passages, où elle proteste qu’elle a en horreur l’érection de toute sorte de Secte [...] jamais elle n’a attiré personne, et encore moins fait changer quelques-uns de Religion.’

18  [Poiret], Verdedigende Voorreden, p. 73.

19  Cf. Jean Orcibal, ‘Les spirituels français et espagnols chez John Wesley et ses contemporains’, in : Revue de l’histoire des religions 70, vol. CXXXIX (1951), p. 50-109, at p. 79. See also Ted A. Campbell, The religion of the heart. A study of European religious life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Columbia 1991).

20  Among those who made a stand against Poiret in this question was Johann Wolfgang Jäger (1647-1720). He was the author of Examen Theologia nova et maxime celeberr. Dom. Poireti ejusq Magistra Ant. de Bourignon (Frankfurt and Leipzig 1708; review in the Boekzaal der geleerde werelt, July and August 1708, p. 157ff).

21 Otger Steggink and Kees Waaijman, Spiritualiteit en mystiek, I Inleiding (Nijmegen 1985), p. 27.

22  Cf. Michael Heyd, ‘Be sober and reasonable’. The critique of enthusiasm in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Leiden, New York, Cologne 1995); Dorothee Sturkenboom, Spectators van hartstocht. Sekse en emotionele cultuur in de achttiende eeuw (Hilversum 1998), p. 168-171.

23  P. Bayle, Dictionaire historique et critique (2 vols., Rotterdam 1697) I, p. 645-651. For this paper I consulted the 3rd rev. edition (4 vols., Rotterdam 1720), volume I, p. 639-644 (with additional explanatory notes S). For a review of Bayle’s view on Bourignon, see also Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’; Von Tippelskirch, ‘Antoinette Bourignon’.

24  For Bayle’s aversion to prophets, see Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, II, p. 146; J. Solé, ‘Religion et vision historiographique dans "le Dictionnaire" de Bayle’, in: Religion, érudition et critique à la fin du xviie  siècle et au début du xviiie(Paris 1968), p. 119-200; F.R.J. Knetsch, Bayle’s oordeel over Comenius (Groningen 1970).

25  Charnley, ‘La vie et l’oeuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 447-452. The following is in broad outlines based on this article.

26  Bayle, Dictionnaire I, p. 639 and explanatory notes B, p. 639-640: ‘Elle était douée d’une chasteté surprenante’.

27 Ibidem, explanatory notes C, p. 640.

28 Ibidem, explanatory notes D, p. 641.

29 Ibidem, explanatory notes I, p. 642, where Bayle refers to her refusal of the cooperation with Jean de Labadie (1610-1674), another prophet who claimed to be chosen by God as His instrument. For Labadie, see T.J. Saxby, The Quest for the New Jerusalem. Jean de Labadie and the Labadists, 1610-1744. Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées 115 (Dordrecht, Boston, London 1987). See also the chapter on Labadie in De Certeau, La Fable mystique, p. 374-405.

30 Ibidem, explanatory notes E, p. 641.

31 Ibidem, explanatory notes M, p. 642.

32 Ibidem, p. 643.

33  In the first edition of his Dictionnaire Bayle expressed his indignation over this miscalculation right to the point by stating: ‘l’esprit qui avoit revelé cet incendie à la Demoiselle Bourignon ne marqua pas bien le temps’. Quoted by Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 450, from Bayle’s Dictionnaire [1697] Roy B.

34  Bayle, Dictionnaire I, p. 72-75: ‘Adam’, explanatory notes G (p. 73-74); Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 448. Antoinette thought, as Bayle noted, that one would return after death with just one sex, the male gender, into the state of innocence. He wondered whether she then thought that she in her quality as a female could not enter Paradise. Bayle also referred to Bourignon’s notion of Adam’s exterior. As she asserted that he had a second nose located at his genitals, which had the same form as the nose in his face. According to her this part of Adam’s body was a source of pleasant smells and delicious perfumes, and from this part of his body mankind must have originated.

35 Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 449-450. She refers to the second edition of Bayle’s Pensées Diverses, écrites à un Docteur de Sorbonne. A l’occasion de la Comète qui parut au mois de Décembre 1680 (2 vols., Rotterdam: Reinier Leers, 1683).

36  Charnley, ‘La vie et l’œuvre d’Antoinette Bourignon’, p. 450-452.

37  ‘Emic and etic are terms used by anthropologists, and by others in the social and behavioural sciences to refer to two different kinds of data concerning human behaviour. In particular, they are used in cultural anthropology, to refer to kinds of fieldwork done and viewpoints obtained’, quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic. Cf. Thomas N. Headland, Kenneth L. Pike, and Marvin Harris (ed.), Emics and Etics. The Insider/Outsider Debate. Frontiers of Anthropology vol. 7 (Newbury Park, Calif., [etc.] 1990). ‘Emic’ is a perspective from within the domain of analysis, an insider's viewpoint, which judges the validity of the system by the system's own criteria.

38  ‘Etic’ is the view from the outside, relying on its own set of criteria to judge the system. An ‘etic’ account attempts to be neutral or objective.

39  His Dictionnaire has gone through several editions. The first edition was published in 1697 (2 vols. Rotterdam: Reinier Leers). In 1702 (Rotterdam: Reinier Leers, 3 vols.) and 1720 (Rotterdam: Michel Böhm, 4 vols.) revised editions were published. See also H.H.M. van Lieshout, Van boek tot bibliotheek: de wordingsgeschiedenis van de Dictionnaire Historique et Critique van Pierre Bayle (1689-1706) (Dissertation Catholic University Nijmegen 1992).

40  Mirjam de Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken.’ Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)(Zutphen 2004), see also 'Ik moet spreken'. Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680).

41  For a historiographical overview of the developments in biographical studies, see Hans Erich Bödeker, ‘Biographie. Annäherungen an den gegenwärtigen Forschungs- und Diskussionsstand’, in: Idem (ed.), Biographie schreiben (Göttingen 2003), p. 9-63.

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Légende Antoinette Bourignon, Portrait (from a drawing by Pierre Poiret), engraving made for the edition of her collected works (1686)
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Mirjam de Baar, « Conflicting Discourses on Female Dissent in the Early Modern Period: The Case of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) », L’Atelier du Centre de recherches historiques [En ligne], 04 | 2009, mis en ligne le 04 septembre 2009, consulté le 23 avril 2017. URL : http://acrh.revues.org/1399 ; DOI : 10.4000/acrh.1399

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Mirjam de Baar

Mirjam de Baar is lecturer in History of Christianity (Reformation and Early Modern History) and Genderstudies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Oude Boteringestraat 38, NL 9712 GK Groningen, The Netherlands.
Webpages: http://www.rug.nl/staff/m.p.a.de.baar/index

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