Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was born in Alt Seidenberg, a small village in Lusatia, near the border of what is now Germany and Poland. The Boehme legend emphasizes his humble beginnings and his apprenticeship in the family trade of shoemaking; it is clear, though, that in Görlitz, where his family moved when he was young, the business was a success, and young Jacob absorbed an eclectic, if not particularly formal education. Görlitz at the time was a centre of medicine, as well as a focal point for those holding "heretical" and marginal religious and philosophical positions. The teachings of Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, the Kabbalists, Valentin Weigel, and others found a home there alongside the more traditional religious and scientific intellectual currents. The mayor, Bartolomäus Scultetus, was well educated in the scientific thought of the day, and the Lutheran pastors during Boehme's life, Martin Möller and Gregory Richter, were both intellectually active. Boehme thus had opportunity in his formative years to taste of all these influences, and his writings reflect the fact that he was a diligent student.
According to his biographer, Abraham von Franckenburg, the most significant event of Boehme's life occurred in 1600. In less than a quarter hour, he had the mystical experience that set him upon his intellectual journey. Triggered by a glint of light in a pewter dish, he had an "understanding" of the secret foundation and principle of all creation. This experience was not a vision in any traditional sense, but rather a new comprehension of the forces of nature and their relation to God. He went outside after having this experience, and found that the world was new to him. Nature had taken on new significance.
Boehme's entire life's writing can hardly be distilled to this one experience; however, it is clear that the experience gave early focus to his learning. He did not publish his first (and most famous) book, the Aurora, until twelve years later, in 1612. This volume created a furore in Görlitz, mainly because it was seen as an affront to traditional Lutheran orthodoxy by the pastor, Gregory Richter. Boehme was subjected to tirades from the pulpit, and under Richter's influence, the town council forced him to stop writing.
It was a ruling he observed for seven years, although his mystical and intellectual development continued unabated. Lusatia in general and Görlitz in particular was a centre of alchemical interest. There were many followers of Paracelsus in the area, and Renaissance Neo-Platonism was a major philosophical influence. Boehme was in contact with members of these movements, and when he finally took pen in hand to resume writing in 1619, the development of his thought was evident. His resumption of writing came at the behest of enthusiastic readers, who had circulated copies of the Aurora against the order of the city council.
Unfortunately, his first effort fell short of the Aurora. The Three Principles of Divine Essence (Beschreibung der Drey Principien Göttliches Wesens) is a difficult work, one which lacks the youthful enthusiasm of Aurora, but retains its ill-explained, multi-layered structure. The Three Principles provides an early indication of his preoccupation with the natural world, which found its fullest expression in Signature Rerum. In the Three Principles he does not yet have a theory of signatures, but he does make the connection between the natural world and its Würßel, its root. All creation has an inner being, which accounts for its characteristic shape, taste, and other attributes. God is the one that accounts for the nature of everything.
Boehme is not advocating a kind of pre-Enlightenment natural theology here. It is not simply that the diversity of nature points to a God outside nature, who created it. Rather, it points to a God inside nature, that provides the life in creation. His explanation here is his first thoroughgoing attempt at giving an alchemical expression to the internal life of God and nature. The Aurora spoke of seven spirits of nature, three principles, and the like, but it is here that we first get the interplay of Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt as representative of these principles and spirits.
After publication of this work, there was increased writing activity. 1620 saw the publication of several major works: The Threefold Life of Man (Vom dreyfachen Leben des Menschen); Forty Questions on the Soul (Vierzig Fragen von der Seelen); and On the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (Von der Menschwerdung Jesu Christi). Besides these, he published some small occasional tracts, and there is evidence that he was working on other projects, published later. Boehme himself recognized the change of emphasis in his works. In 1621 in a letter to Caspar Linder, he divided his writings in three groups: 1) Aurora; 2) Three Principles, Three-fold Life, and Forty Questions; 3) On the Incarnation, Signature Rerum, and Six Theosophical Points.