B.J. Gibbons

Gender in Mystical and Occult Thought:

Behmenism and Its Development in England

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996, 247 pp.


Reviewed by Prof. Arthur Versluis,

Michigan State University


This is a very helpful contribution to a long-overlooked field. In this book, Gibbons discusses the history of Böhmenist theosophy in England, focussing on the mid-seventeenth century, and concentrating on the subject of gender. Gibbons, clearly erudite, has read a great many of the source works from the period, and provides a helpful overview of the period with remarks on many of the primary figures in English esotericism of the day. He also attempts to place English Böhmenist thought not only in historical context, but also in relation to contemporary feminism, determining in the end that although English Böhmenism had a number of prominent women figures including Jane Leade, the most well known, although it prominently featured the androgyne in its anthropology, and although it centered on the feminine figure of Wisdom, still somehow it comes out as more or less "patriarchal." Somehow, on this point one remains unconvinced.

The primary use of this book lies in its direct discussions of major English theosophic figures and their works. These will be of use in introducing other scholars to this field, and because in general Gibbons stays close to the texts themselves, his remarks about them are often helpful. It is good to see Richard Roach and Francis Lee represented here, as well as the somewhat more well known figures of John Pordage and Jane Leade. But so fertile is this field, and so little examined, that one wishes Gibbons had stayed closer to these primary theosophic figures and not strayed into related


fields like the development of Shakerism, for instance. A closer analysis of Pordage would have revealed aspects of his thought not alluded to here, including his remarks on the "magnetic tinctures" in men and women, and related observations that in turn influenced Continental and, for that matter, Russian theosophic thought.

If there is one serious cavil many readers must have with this book, it has to do with contemporary European scholarship. It is true that French scholarship has had more to do with Continental theosophy than with English theosophy, but since this book draws extensively on Böhme's thought, it would be useful to see at least some references to major European scholars; as it stands, the book's bibliography is quite helpful in its listing of English sources, but lacking in European contemporary references. This being said, however, the book brings in many important works and figures in English history that one is pleased to see discussed, some for the first time since their original publication in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

It is interesting to see Gibbons's analysis of Böhmenism in view of contemporary feminism, however successful it is, but one looks forward to further explorations of this field for its own sake. There is a great deal here that still is to be uncovered, and although what one finds may or may not fit into contemporary predilections, what one is uncovering is of interest in its own right. Especially the figure of John Pordage - subject to so much opprobrium in his own day and right into the twentieth century - deserves much closer examination than he has thus far received. In my own view, Pordage is arguably by far the most important figure of this period, and looking closely at his voluminous works will offer much to those familiar with the works of Henry Corbin. Gibbons's book is a helpful contribution to a field that could stand many more explorations from a variety of perspectives; one hopes that it is a sign of more to come.