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BOURIGNON, Antoinette (born Lille, France, 13 January 1616 – died Franeker 30/31 October 1680), mystic, prophetess and author of religious works. Daughter of Jean Bourignon (c. 1582-1648), merchant, and Marguerite Becquart (died 1641). Antoinette Bourignon never married.

Antoinette Bourignon grew up in a well-to-do middle-class home in Lille, at that time part of the Spanish Netherlands. Her education must have been appropriate to her standing and sex, so that she learned to read, write, keep accounts and play the harpsichord. Her parents would have liked her to marry a French merchant, but Antoinette chose to devote her life to God and escaped marriage by running away from home in 1636. In her spiritual autobiography La Parole de Dieu (1663), she relates that in 1635 Saint Augustine appeared to her in a vision. He supposedly instructed her to restore his order. This mysterious request marked the beginning of Bourignon’s spiritual voyage of discovery, one that eventually led her to take a critical and independent stance in relation to the Church and its doctrinal authority.

Bourignon first sought support from the clergy. In 1636 she even managed to obtain an audience with the Archbishop of Cambrai, Franciscus van der Burch (1567-1644). After consulting him she decided to establish her own community in nearby Blaton with a number of lay sisters from Mons. Her plans came to nothing, however, and she went on to look for a place in the margins of the Church where she could withdraw from the world and dedicate herself to prayer and meditation. She spent the years between 1643 and 1647 living in the hermitage near the parish church of Saint-André, outside the walls of Lille. Here she completed her first piece of writing, Traité de la vie solitaire, which was dedicated to the perfection of a reclusive life.

From 1653 to 1662 Bourignon ran a home for poor girls in Lille called Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs (Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows). She was now a woman of independent means, thanks to the fortune she had inherited from her mother, who had died in 1641. As mistress of the home, Bourignon instructed the girls in religion. She also provided them with food, drink and clothing at her own expense. Accusations of sorcery and complaints that the girls were treated too strictly forced Bourignon to resign her post as regentess in 1662.

In the public eye

Bourignon promptly left for Ghent and travelled from there to Brussels and Mechelen (Malines), in the hope of gaining satisfaction from the higher courts of justice. During this journey she came into contact with Jansenist-oriented spiritual leaders, including Christiaan de Cort, father superior of Mechelen Oratory and priest at the Sint-Janskerk (Church of St. John). She exchanged views with these spiritual leaders in an exhaustive series of ‘conferences’. Thanks to these conversations, Bourignon came to understand the vision she had had in 1653: Augustine had given her the task of restoring ‘true Christianity’ on earth. The conversations also inspired her to write a series of short treatises on confession, repentance, prayer, Holy Communion and other theological issues.

Bourignon let De Cort persuade her to travel with him to Amsterdam and on to the island of Nordstrand off the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein. Previously, as ‘director’ of Nordstrand, he had invested huge sums in the island’s dykes, and he was convinced that this was where Bourignon’s community of true Christians should be established. In December 1667 she arrived in Amsterdam, planning to travel on to Nordstrand the following spring. Her plans were thwarted, however, for De Cort was imprisoned at the request of his creditors and died in November 1669 after six months in jail. For Bourignon this meant an unexpected prolongation of her stay in the Dutch Republic.

During her stay in Amsterdam, Bourignon’s life took a completely new turn. The freedom of the press that prevailed in the city made it possible for her to publish her work for the first time. To avoid dependence on commercial printers, she bought her own printing press in 1669 and had a printing establishment set up in her own house. That year saw the publication of her first substantial work, La lumiere née en ténèbres (The light born in darkness), a collection of letters, the Dutch translation of which was printed at the same time.

In Amsterdam, Bourignon came into contact for the first time with adherents of other faiths: Calvinists, Lutherans, Mennonites and Jews. She also became acquainted with the thinking of the Quakers, Collegiants, Socinians, Cartesians and various prophets and prophetesses. Bourignon thus became aware of how divided Christendom was in her day, and it prompted her to strike out on a more interdenominational path. First, and most importantly, the dogmatic differences between the various religious groups had to be put aside. After all, they shared the same Gospel, the same creed, the same Lord’s Prayer and the same Ten Commandments. In Bourignon’s eyes, it was of prime importance to follow Christ’s teachings: therein lay the essence of the Christian faith. From 1669 onwards, Bourignon propagated her message in numerous epistles and writings, without professing to establish a new church or sect. She did however claim the ‘motherhood of true believers’, which caused consternation among some of her Amsterdam sympathisers.

In 1671 and 1672 Bourignon entered into agreements with three Amsterdam merchants – Volckert van der Velde, Johan Tiellens and Frederik Franken – whose plans were designed to lay the financial basis for her community of true Christians. The contracting parties hereby stipulated that their property would belong to all of them communally and that they would inherit everything from one another. The last surviving person could admit new members to the ‘society of true Christians’ and leave the property to them. Not only merchants, doctors and theologians, but also skippers, painters and artisans joined Bourignon’s flock. Her best-known followers included the natural scientist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) and the theologian Pierre Poiret (1646-1719).

Remarkably, Bourignon recruited her followers from beyond the borders of the churches. She not only overstepped the boundaries imposed on the female sex by both church and society, but also breached confessional barriers. Her message appealed particularly to those suffering a crisis of faith, who no longer expected help from existing religious communities. Most of them were men, and this is not surprising when we consider Bourignon’s views on the female sex. She expected to find ‘true Christians’ among men rather than among women, since the former had ‘more courage, and greater conviction’ to be reborn in Christ’s spirit.

In June 1671 Bourignon left Amsterdam with the intention of claiming, together with a group of followers, De Cort’s contested inheritance on Nordstrand. She never set foot on the island, however. Conflicts in Schleswig-Holstein – with Lutheran preachers who found her highly suspect – forced her to change residence constantly. In March 1676 Bourignon went to Hamburg. From there she left, more than a year later, for Lütetsberg in East Friesland (Germany), where she was welcomed by Baron Dodo II zu Inn- und Knyphausen (1641-1698). Accusations of sorcery from her own circle were one reason why Bourignon, by now 64 years old, attempted in September 1680 to return to Amsterdam. However, illness forced her to interrupt her journey at Franeker. She died in the night of 30-31 October 1680 and was buried without ceremony at the beginning of November in Franeker. The company that had gathered around her had dwindled in size to a core group of five followers, largely owing to the problems surrounding the establishment of the community on Nordstrand and all kinds of internal conflicts regarding the communal life Bourignon proposed.

Bourignon’s teachings

Bourignon’s sizeable oeuvre comprises 46 works in French. Many of these writings were translated by her followers into Dutch and German and published during her lifetime. Bourignon also had some of her work translated into Latin. After her death, Poiret brought out her as yet unpublished letters and writings. He also assumed responsibility for producing an unabridged edition of her work titled Toutes les oeuvres (The Complete Works), published in nineteen volumes in 1686 by Hendrik Wetstein in Amsterdam. In 1683 Poiret also published the first biography of Bourignon, which appeared with her autobiographical writings under the title La Vie de Dam. Antoinette Bourignon. It was thanks to Poiret’s publicity campaign that the Scottish theologian George Garden became interested in Bourignon’s work at the end of the seventeenth century. He translated some of her writings into English, with the result that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century a series of English publications appeared which took a critical stance against what was then termed ‘Bourignonism’.

A systematically worked-out doctrine cannot really be found in Bourignon’s writings. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tie her to a specific theological position or ecclesiastical type. On the grounds of her own religious experiences and her spiritual, experience-oriented approach to the Christian faith, she could, for example, be called a mystic. Elements of quietism are recognisable in her notions of self-abnegation and subjection to the will of God. However, Bourignon’s emphasis on an active religious life means that she can also be considered a representative of pietism, even though her views on Scripture, the doctrine of divine grace and ecclesiology were very unusual and did not always agree with those of other radical pietists. Finally, Bourignon’s disdain for the profession of faith and religious institutions, as well as her reservations about the texts of the evangelists, who in her view had an imperfect knowledge of God, point ahead to the religious criticism and rationalistic approach to the Bible that took root during the Enlightenment.


Even before her collected works were published in 1686 Bourignon had won a place in the annals of ecclesiastical history. Balthasar Bekker’s 1683 publication Kort begrijp der algemeine kerkelijke historien zedert het jaar 1666 (Concise account of general ecclesiastical history since 1666) devoted a whole page to Bourignon, whom he characterised as ‘a popish woman’ who ‘in the course of time passed herself off as a great saint and infallible prophetess’ (1685, pp. 24-25). In his view she was a zealot and a charlatan, who had never had many followers. In 1697 Pierre Bayle included an article on Bourignon in his Dictionnaire historique et critique. He, too, was unconvinced of her genuineness and thought her domineering, miserly and moody. Yet it is partly due to the attention Bayle paid to her that Bourignon was given a place in eighteenth-century catalogues and biographical dictionaries. Numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century catalogues, biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedia in Dutch, French and German also mention her name. From the mid-nineteenth century the first ecclesiastical-historical studies on Bourignon began to appear, but these studies did not reach a clear consensus as to her importance. Bourignon remains fascinating, however, as evidenced by various twentieth-century historical novels in which she figures and by the religious-psychological and gender studies devoted to her.

Reference work(s)

Van der Aa; BLGNP; Kobus/De Rivecourt; NNBW.


Part of the copy used for the edition is kept in the Manuscript Collection of UB Amsterdam (UvA). Letters to followers and business correspondence [copies and autographs] in the Manuscript Collections of KB, The Hague; UB Amsterdam (UvA); UB Leiden; Gemeentearchief Amsterdam; Bodleian Library, Oxford; Kongeli­ge Bibliotek, Kopenhagen; Archives Départementales du Nord, Lille; Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesarchiv, Sleeswijk; Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, Aurich [see references in De Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’ (2004)].


See the bibliography in De Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’ (2004) [CD].


  • H. van Berkum, Antoinette Bourignon. Een beeld uit de kerkelijke geschiedenis der XVIIde eeuw (Sneek 1853).
  • Antonius von der Linde, Antoinette Bourignon. Das Licht der Welt (Leiden 1895).
  • Alex. R. MacEwen, Antoinette Bourignon. Quietist (London 1910).
  • John Björkhem, Antoinette Bourignon. Till den svärmis­ka religio­sitetens histo­ria och psykologi (Stockholm 1940).
  • Marthe van der Does, Antoinette Bourignon. Sa vie (1616-1680) - son oeuvre (Groningen 1974) [PhD thesis Rijksuniversiteit Groningen].
  • Mirjam de Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’. Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) (Zutphen 2004) [including CD with complete list of  writings and comprehensive bibliography].


Engraving after a posthumous portrait by Pierre Poiret, 1686. From: De Baar, ‘Ik moet spreken’.

Author: Mirjam de Baar

last updated: 13/01/2014