Today sees the 399th Anniversary of the birth of Antoinette Bourignon. She may not be some one one you know but she is a great example of someone who thought radical idea, was influential and had to constantly had to move to be able to survive for having her own thoughts and beliefs in religion in a time when women were preferred to be seen and not heard and definitely not expressing an opinion.
The seventeenth century was an interesting time especially in Europe. It was in a period post reformation and counter reformation. Alliances within Europe was still mostly drawn along the lines of religious preference.
Antoinette was born in Lille France on 13th January 1616. Her childhood was a traditional French Catholic childhood. In 1636, aged 20, she left her parental home after refusing a proposal of marriage – brave or fool hardy in the seventeenth Century. For the next 17 years Bourignon was part of the religious order Discaled Carmelites, a Catholic order that depended upon charitable donations.
In 1653, Antoinette came in to some inheritance and decided to use this money to set up an orphanage for girls. This was short lived as nine years after starting the institution Bourignon had to flee in mist a scandal; there was an investiagtion in the treatment of the girls under her care. Bourignon believed that she had been had been directed by god and any mistreatment or punishment the girls suffered under her were, issued from god as the girls consorted with the Devil himself.
About this time Bourignon started thinking about Christianity. She reasoned that the church in Rome was too luxurious and extravagant to be true Christianity after all Christ was born in a stable, was to become a child refugee, was the son of a humble carpenter, and supported his preaching through the kindness and donations of others. She felt that only true Christians will be saved and that it was her duty to gather them together for end of days.
In 1667 she was in Amsterdam gathering a small group of like minded mostly men (married) and she publish her work. Amongst her followers was scientist Robert Boyle.
Some of the most offensive claims that Antoinette Bourignon made was that she was the “New Eve”. She eventually found herself the wrong side of Flanders Lutheran government who disliked her message – as she was free thinking and a nuisance the easiest crime to accuse her of in 17th century Europe was witchcraft. While fleeing Amsterdam and the accusation of witchcraft Antoinette Bourignon fell fatally ill and died on 30th October 1680.
Antoinette Bourignon’s legacy would be to have her work eventually held in the University of Amsterdam. Also in the early Eighteenth Century her work and ideas were debated at several Presbyterian general assemblies in Scotland.
Antoinette Bourignon may have had odd, even wrong views on religion, but in a time when women with opinions and thoughts such as hers, could find themselves as a social outcast as best or a condemned witch as worst, she was brave. She embodied a very modern idea of freedom of speech something that France and the rest of Western Europe has felt threatened in recent days. Society needs the Antoinette Bourignon of history to make them tolerant and accepting.