Antoinette Bourignon: Latent Feminist?
In early modern Europe, Christian women were discouraged from intimate involvement with Christian theology and independent religious study. This was a decidedly male- dominated sphere, in which learned men published and contested their interpretations of Scriptures, almost exclusively occupied church positions, and directed women to fulfill their Godly duties in the place they deemed it held the most significance: in their homes as mothers and wives. Often using 1 Timothy 2: 11-15 as justification, male religious authorities denied women Christian leadership roles, curtailed active and independent study of the Gospels, and criticized the publication of religious materials crafted by women. Nonetheless, scores of devout women made their way into religious prominence, finding unique and sometimes controversial ways to involve themselves in the process.
Some female theologians produced their works based on traditional sects of Christianity, while others—like seventeenth- century Flemish mystic Antoinette Bourignon—developed their own challenging doctrines and beliefs and confronted the incumbent criticisms from their male contemporaries. According to modern feminist thought, the teachings from people like Bourignon—which rejected submission to any existing church and valued a strong personal covenant with God alone—can be seen as having provided opportunities to ordinary women for religious expression and leadership roles that were not open to them in any other established church. For example, Bourignon discouraged reading of the Bible and Scriptures, so literacy was not inherently requisite; also, her rejection of all church institutions allowed her female followers to operate freely outside of the male- dominated religious hierarchy. However, while Bourignon developed these controversial doctrines, those familiar with Bourignon’s personal life and teachings may note that, apparent religious inclusion notwithstanding, she was not the latent feminist icon that certain modern interpretations of her works may suggest. From her exclusively- male discipleship to the critical view she held of herself as a woman, Bourignon neither encouraged nor supported her female followers or their development.
From a young age, Bourignon rejected nearly all of the conventions appropriate to her time period, religious upbringing, gender and social standing. In 1621, at five years old, she was already verbalizing her disagreement with the preeminence of the Catholic Church, claiming that her native Belgium—a Catholic state—was not a real “Christian land” and that she wanted to be sent elsewhere. In her adolescence, she was unapologetic in her distaste to the idea and institution of marriage, vocal about abhorring her father’s rude treatment of her mother, and critical of the fickleness of male suitors. At nineteen years old, on the eve of her arranged wedding to a wealthy French merchant, Bourignon fled her family home disguised as a man, but was eventually caught. She returned to her parents on the condition that she no longer be pressured to marry; however, upon her return, her parents admonished her harshly and treated her more severely than before. Nearly two years later she asked to take leave of her family and pursue her personal interest—religion. When her father denied this request and instead threatened her, she ran away and established a private nunnery at the permission of the Archbishop du Mons.
Before these incidents, during her teen years, Bourignon’s true religious involvement had already begun. Years prior to her escape from the arranged marriage, Bourignon had secretly tried to join a Carmelite Convent, but was turned away by the Prior who demanded she bring a large sum of money with her in order to be admitted. Sensing the Prior’s corruption, she became suspicious and critical of the virtues of churchmen and thus developed her own domestic convent in private: she took Communion three times a week, wore uncomfortable clothing, converted her bedroom into a penitential cloister, fasted often, and mixed ashes into her food to lessen her enjoyment of meals. It was then that she claims she had her first mystic visions of Saint Augustine and divine conversations with God, the most notable of which conveyed to her that she was to become “the founder and beginner” of a new place on Earth for people to practice her notoriously strict form of quietism.
These visions, along with her developing disdain of the clergy and the hierarchical structure of the Church institution, were the early manifestations of what would become the basis of her teachings, but also the underlying sources for her criticisms. Her time operating the small nunnery under the Archbishop du Mons was to be very brief. The Archbishop soon removed her from her position after stating that the Bible itself was not necessary and that “all the evils of the church come from the churchmen.” By vocalizing her dissent, primarily to the women in her nunnery, she was perceived as attempting to delegitimize the church and challenge the patriarchy. Thus, Bourignon left her home and travelled Europe, initially supporting herself monetarily with her needlepoint and craftwork, and later fighting for and securing some inheritance and property rights from her father’s estate. As she journeyed, she developed her teachings, and began her history of antagonism against nearly every denomination of Christianity with which she was acquainted.
At this point, Bourignon did not identify with any of the established churches in Europe, and reevaluated even the most basic aspects of Christianity. She dismantled the notion that the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) should be perpetuated as a gendered idea, instead preferring to refer to these representations of God as Truth, Justice, and Love. As previously mentioned, Bourignon saw men as a source for the church’s corruption and demise, and to remove male- centric language from the most powerful figures in Christianity was to restore their sanctity in her eyes.
She also sought to remove any distorting intermediary between God and his followers; this included a strict rejection of Scripture and a rejection of clergymen. Bourignon taught her followers that “though truth may be read in Scripture, it is better to give oneself over to that same Spirit which inspired Scripture and thereby to receive illumination directly [..] No human effort is required—only abandonment of the self to God.” Bourignon’s quietism involved complete resignation from the world, all Earthly goods, and of one’s own freewill to allow oneself to be the vessel through which God will flow directly. This pattern of thinking was inherently hostile to the Church’s hierarchical structure, which stressed the roles and importance of priests, clerics and other human mediators between the Earthly and Spiritual realm. While she openly rejected Roman Catholicism, Jansenism, Arminianism, Quakers, Anabaptism, Mennonites, and others on this basis, contemporary male clerics feared that this rejection was indicative of a deeper rebellion against general male authority.
On the surface, the results of her teachings seem to be compatible with the status of female Christians in the seventeenth century: literacy was not necessary, deep study of the Bible was not advised, and Bourignon’s quietism could grant women vast spiritual freedom outside of the constraints of Church authority and did not compartmentalize the roles women could play in society. And while the teachings of other—perhaps less radical—quietists such as Madame Guyon, were relatively accessible to and attracted pious women, Bourignon herself was highly critical of her female followers, preferring to be surrounded by only the most devout males whom she deemed worthy. Even in reference to her own sex, she expressed contempt saying, “I have experienced great displeasure that God created me a woman, but since he let me know that I was pleasing to him thus, I have been content there.”
As a prophetess and teacher, she claimed to have many “spiritual children,” which was the term she used to refer to her male disciples, but she is not recorded as ever having or wanting any spiritual daughters to lead. It should be noted that her male disciples were almost exclusively married men around her age, which was another source of criticism against her and rose suspicions of her purported chastity. Indeed the fact that the men were married was a point of contention for Bourignon as she often tried to lead the men away from the influence of their wives, seeing these women as hindrances, too worldly and unprepared to follow their husbands down “the narrow path to salvation.” This is reflective of some of her earlier practices.
Years before developing her male following, Bourignon operated a small religious cloister in the early 1660s. It consisted only of young women with Bourignon as headmistress. Due to her exceedingly oppressive treatment of the girls there—which included a strict rotating schedule of prayer, silent housework, and rote repetitions of prayers, every day from 5am to 10pm—many became hysteric and began to hallucinate. During a trial lodged against Bourignon in 1662, a parish priest claimed that “all thirty- two girls who were then in the house […] were bound to the devil” as a result of Bourignon’s tutelage. Yet Bourignon remained unsympathetic in her treatment and perceptions of women. She found them to be both the primary and continuous sources of sin, and in this way, she was aligned with other seventeenth- century thought.
Throughout her life, Bourignon traveled from Belgium to France and eventually settled in The Netherlands semi- permanently, as this was the most religiously tolerant region of the time. As a result, she was able to produce her provocative doctrines without much fear of physical persecution as she might have faced in Roman Catholic France. In 1680 after her death, a few of her main disciples—most notably Pierre Poiret—compiled her anthology of works and published them. A decade following her passing, a rise in Bourignianism—as her teachings were called—took place in Protestant- majority England and Scotland, inciting severe criticisms by the Ministry of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish General Assembly.
In 1701, the Scottish General Assembly officially declared her teachings “heresy” and specified eight counts of her heretical nature. They were mostly associated with her ideas about sin and salvation, the duality of man, for her criticisms of nearly all Christians and Churches, her ideas about an androgynous Adam figure, and postulations of a less than perfect Jesus figure. Her most prominent devotee, Minister George Garden of Aberdeen—of the Scottish Episcopal Church—was removed from his position for writing an English translation of her works and offering defenses for their merit. For the next several decades, followers of Bourignianism that held higher religious office were excommunicated or removed from their clerical positions. The status of Bourignon’s works now remains in ambiguity; it is simultaneously questioned and defended, defamed and praised.
In conclusion, while Bourignon’s works were highly contested and criticized on multiple grounds, Bourignon herself did not actively try to further female involvement in religious studies. Historically, she was severe against all women from her role as oppressive headmistress to her discouragement of female followers. Although Bourignon developed a platform with which one could potentially promote gender equality in spirituality—with her agender view of God, her hermaphroditic Adam conjecture, her rejection of the Church patriarchal hierarchy, and elimination of written Scriptures—she did not pursue this angle as fervently as other female mystics did.
 “A woman must quietly receive instruction with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet in the congregation[…]it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner, but women will be saved through the bearing of children…”(1 Tim 2:11-15).
 Irwin, Joyce. “Anna Maria van Schurman and Antoinette Bourignon: Contrasting Examples of Seventeenth-Century Pietism.” Church History 60, no. 3 (September 1991): 301
 Macewen, Alexander Robertson. Antoinette Bourignon, Quietist. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910: 27
 The wedding was arranged by her father.
 Bourignon’s father had strongly opposed the nunnery, citing the inherent “greed and hypocrisy” among all Flemish nuns. (Macewen, 28)
 Macewen, 32
 Macewen, 34
 Irwin, 309
 Weisner- Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern History. 3rd ed. 2008. p242
 Bourignon, Antoinette. Le Temoignage de Verite 2, Vol. 13 of Oeuvres, 1684. p61
 Macewen, 46- 7
 De Baar, Miram. “Conflicting Discourses on Female Dissent in the Early Modern Period: The Case of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680).” L’Atelier du Centre de Recherches Historiques (April 2009).
 Irwin, 313
 Macewen, 40
 Irwin, 314
 Bourignon believed that Adam was created with both sexes within him and his female counterpart was created after the fall of man. She also made intimations that there may have been two Eves.
 The translation—titled, An Apology for M. Antonia Bourignon—was published in Scotland in 1699.
**Cockburn, John. Bourignianism detected: or, the delusions and errors of Antonia Bourignon, and her growing sect. London: The Swan, 1698.
Cockburn’s writing expresses the criticisms that contemporaries had in regards to Antoinette Bourignon’s religious life and work. It is at times heavy handed, paralleling her doctrines to disease and delusions that did not align with Roman Catholic scripture. It was published nearly twenty years following her death, at a time where “Bourignianism”—the name given to the Bourignon’s teachings and doctrines—was spreading further outside of Antoinette’s native Netherlands and sweeping through Germany and Scotland. It is a critique her writing, her disciples, and of her new followers.
A pdf version of the original text:
A transcribed version with a more legible text:
De Baar, Miram. “Conflicting Discourses on Female Dissent in the Early Modern Period: The Case of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680).” L’Atelier du Centre de Recherches Historiques (April 2009).
This scholarly article provides an analysis of the varying views Bourignon’s contemporaries had in regards to her works in the religious field. The first is about Pierre Poiret—Bourignon’s closest disciple—who defended her work and claimed she was criticized mostly because she was a woman, and if any male church leader had produced similar works as her, they would have been readily adopted and praised. The other analysis is about Pierre Bayle—one of Bourignon’s harshest critics—and the papers he wrote to undermine Bourignon’s influence.
**Garden, George. An Apology for M. Antonia Bourignon. 1699.
Garden was a Scottish minister in the seventeenth century who was later denounced for subscribing to Bourignianism. This “apology” is an eight- volume collection, in which he provides English- language translations of some of Bourignon’s works, gives his own defenses of their merit against the critiques raised against them, and praises her for her zeal and obedience to God. I will be citing from the first four ‘parts’ of his book.
A pdf version of the original text:
Irwin, Joyce. “Anna Maria van Schurman and Antoinette Bourignon: Contrasting Examples of Seventeenth-Century Pietism.” Church History 60, no. 3 (September 1991): 301-15.
In this scholarly publication, Irwin discusses the development of female Christian theologians in the “pietistic” movement of the Seventeenth Century. She argues that it was the intuitive approach to religion brought on by this movement which initially attracted the women of this era, and goes on to compare and contrast the works of two of the more noteworthy quietists of the time: Bourignon and Van Shurman.
Macewen, Alexander Robertson. Antoinette Bourignon, Quietist. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.
Macewen’s book gives a biographical outline of Bourignon’s life as a mystic, prophet, and religious figure and details what her ideologies were and how they developed. The book also contains some of Bourignon’s translated writings and the criticisms of her contemporaries.
I obtained a copy from UGA’s repository.