Was Madge really Mad or simply a woman?

As my contribution this year to Ada Lovelace day I am writing about a woman who wasn’t just a scientist but who also wrote extensively about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Margaret Cavendish née Lucas.

Margaret Lucas was born in Colchester in about 1623. (Regular readers of my ramblings will immediately recognise that I’m biased, as I was born down the road from Colchester myself and went to school there). Her family were rich landed gentry but not titled. She received the usual non-education of a gentlewoman of the period. In 1642 as the civil war was cranking into gear, her brother Charles would later be executed following the siege of Colchester, she went to live with her sister in Oxford and succeeded in becoming a maid of honour at the court of Queen Henrietta then resident in Oxford. In 1644 when the Queen withdrew to Paris Margaret accompanied her.

William Cavendish (1592 – 1676) a member of the very wealthy and influential Cavendish family was an aristocrat and courtier who worked his way up the greasy pole of privilege acquiring various titles and lands until he was finally appointed Duke of Newcastle. A gentleman of leisure he was a polymath, an excellent swordsman, equestrian and soldier given to the usual pursuits of the landed gentry but he was also poet, playwright and architect who was both a disciple and a patron of Ben Jonson as well as being patron to a whole host of poets, playwright, artists and musicians.  Both William and his younger brother Charles were devotees of natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences maintaining close contact, before the civil war, with most of the leading English mathematicians and mathematical practitioners of the period, including John Pell, William Oughtred and John Wallis.

Both William and Charles served with distinction in the royalist army during the civil war but were on the losing side at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Forced to flee England the Cavendish brothers joined the Queen’s court in Paris where William, who had lost his first wife, met Margaret fell in love with the much younger woman and married her in 1645 against the wishes of the Queen.

In Paris William and Charles maintained a philosophical salon whose participants included René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi and the English philosophers Kenelm Digby and Thomas Hobbes, who had been private tutor to another branch of the Cavendish family. An unusual aspect of this august discussion circle was that Margaret was not only permitted to attend but also to participate as an equal, an almost unheard of thing for a gentlewoman in this period. In 1648 the Cavendish circus decamped to Holland setting up home in Reuben’s house in Antwerp where their circle of intellectual friends included Pell, now teaching in Holland, Descartes and Constantijn Huygens. In 1660 with the Restoration they could return to England and the life of the landed gentry.

William himself wrote plays and poetry but was outstripped by his young vivacious wife who poured out a series of volumes of poetry and plays in her own right and in her own name, a more than somewhat unusual activity for a female aristocrat. However Margaret pushed the boundaries even further. Having received an education in philosophy from some of the greatest minds in Europe she began to write and publish extensively on the philosophy of science. At first tending to support Hobbes’ materialism, in her more mature writings she rejected both the traditional Aristotelian philosophy as well as the mechanical philosophies of the moderns and developed her own version of vitalism. I’m not going to bore you with an analysis of her somewhat arcane ideas but her writings on the philosophy of science are not to be rejected out of hand. In 1667 she caused a major sensation by becoming the first, and before the 19th century, only women to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. A visit made possible more by her husband’s status and wealth than her own scientific merits. This visit is mentioned together with some rather intriguing details of her correspondence on chemistry with Constantijn Huygens in a recent BBC Radio 4 Point of View by Lisa Jardine.

Having briefly sketched the life of Margaret Cavendish I can now explain the title of this post. Although the habit seems to be dying out Margaret Cavendish was for a long time almost universally referred to, as Mad Madge and it was certainly not meant as a compliment. I know of at least two different explanations for this less than flattering sobriquet. One source has the following to say on the subject:

Margaret was viewed by her contemporaries as being rather eccentric. She was extravagent and flirtatious, accused of using speech full of ‘oaths and obscenity’, and was noted for her unusual sense of fashion. This reputation for eccentricity survives today, when Margaret is widely referred to as ‘Mad Madge’.

Now both of the Cavendish brother, Descartes and Digby were all professional soldiers and it would not surprise me if the language of their discussion, when the nights were long and the bottles almost empty, sometimes resembled that of the barrack room rather than the schools and that Margaret learnt to hold her own in this heady atmosphere. Now the above description could, with a little modification, equally be applied to Margaret’s near contemporary Edmond Halley but nobody refers to him as Loony Eddy!

The other explanation is that Margaret is so referred to because of her unladylike passion for science and its philosophy. Kenelm Digby her Paris companion, who also like Margaret ran a chemistry laboratory and at the same time as she was writing and publishing her tracts on vitalism Digby was publishing his on his strange amalgam of Aristotelian and Cartesian philosophies that enjoyed a certain vogue in the early years of the Royal society. Both philosophies are now out of style and appear to us rather strange but nobody refers to Digby as Krazy Kenelm!

I think Margaret Cavendish gets called Mad Madge for daring to compete in a man’s world. She gets denigrated not because of her outlandish behaviour or her passion for science but simply because she was a woman who had these attributes. I think we should no longer call her Mad Madge but respect and honour Margaret Cavendish as an intelligent and able woman who was a pioneering female philosopher of science at a time when this was an exclusively male occupation.

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5 Comments

Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Ladies of Science

5 responses to “Was Madge really Mad or simply a woman?

  1. This sobriquet might also have been due to her extreme shyness/social anxiety, as Katie Whitaker argues. Great post!

    • Forgot to add: that shyness may have led to some singular conversational tics (as described in Mary Evelyn’s letter to Ralph Bohun), and thus to the nickname “Mad Madge.

  2. An entertaining post as usual, Thony – and I’m sure you know Flamsteed’s description of Halley as he “who now talks, swears, and drinks brandy like a sea-captain”, though I’m not sure even Flamsteed was moved to accuse him of eccentricity in dress. That said, I will be writing a post about a rather unusual outfit of Edmond’s in the near future…

  3. jimroberts

    I expected you to mention “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World”, which I found unutterably tedious, but she uses it to explain some of her odd philosophy.

  4. Granted the recent discussions of gender and science, it might be apropos to mention that Cavendish also wrote a novel entitled Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, which is pretty much about assaulted and pursued chastity.

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