studies in the history of science and culture

© March 2004
revised 6 December 2009

Headpiece from Cavendish's _Observations upon Experimental Philosophy_ (London, 1666)

I HAVE BEEN PUZZLING OVER THE PHENOMENON OF “MAD MADGE” SINCE I FIRST WROTE ABOUT IT IN MY DOCTORAL DISSERTATION (Bazeley 1990). The dissertation gave an account of what I took to be Margaret Cavendish’s proto-ecofeminist science and rhetoric, and accordingly located “Mad Madge” within this narrative.

Building from the assumption that

To understand seventeenth-century aspersions on Margaret’s sanity, it is necessary to recognize that only one of her many eccentricities was repeatedly linked to madness — her audacity in publishing.
(Bazeley 1990, § 1.2)

I went on to pose the question that

Even so, not all women who published during the seventeenth century were considered mad. What made Cavendish’s publication act appear so lunatic?
(Bazeley 1990, § 1.2)

In the end, I decided that it must have been the boldness of Margaret’s public voice — not only in her choice and range of genre, but also in her privileging of a complicated woman’s subjectivity — that led to contemporary revisionings of Margaret as Mad Madge:

... And as the final outrage, Cavendish dared in her first publication, as an admittedly uneducated woman, to address that most “masculine” of subjects: natural philosophy. Her Poems and Fancies opened with poems on atomic theory, explicating her own ideas on the inner workings of the universe, along with discussion of such weighty issues as Aristotelian theories concerning rest, primary versus secondary qualities, and Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. From here, she proceeded to assorted nature poems, intermixed with “similizing” verses, poetic dialogues, moral discourses, fairy poems, war poems, more natural philosophy, some literary criticism, and a thinly-veiled political satire on Republican rule. The text closed with an advertisement for her next publication.
(Bazeley 1990, § 1.2)

In sum,

... Margaret had flouted her lack of scholarly credentials like a badge of courage. She had demanded a public voice on public matters. She had asked for public acclaim. (In later publications, she would go so far as to suggest that her ideas be taught in universities throughout Europe.) Without question, this was (and for many, still is) the stuff of madness.
(Bazeley 1990, § 1.2)

This interpretation was more or less in line with received wisdom at the time. Most critics attributed the Mad Madge sobriquet to Margaret’s scandalous acts of publication.

But still, I had questions.

Did Margaret’s public flouting of male “Prerogatives”

Men ... cast a smile of scorne upon my Book, because they think thereby, Women incroach too much upon their Prerogatives; for they hold Books as their Crowne, and the Sword as their Scepter, by which they rule, and governe....
(Cavendish, Poems and Fancies A3r–A3v;
see also her Natures Pictures A2v and
1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions A3r)

lead inevitably to contemporary representations and perceptions of Mad Madge?

And if so, why were other published women intellectuals, such as Katherine Phillips and Anna Maria van Schurman — who both receive favorable mention in the Athenian Mercury quote (as well as from such popular authors as John Evelyn, one of the founding fathers of the new science’s Royal Society) — not similarly scorned?

In general, it was not the most learned women of her age who drew such public ridicule. More often, Mad Madge was in the company of women like the visionary Anne Wentworth who, six years after Margaret’s death, recorded that

I am reproached as a proud, wicked, deceived, deluded, lying woman, a mad, melancholy, crack-brained, self-willed, conceited fool, and black sinner, led by whimsies, notions and knick-knacks of my own head; one that speaks blasphemy, nor fit to take the name of God in her mouth; an heathen and publican, a fortune-teller, and enthusiast, and the like much more....
(Wentworth, The Revelation of Jesus Christ
[1679]; qtd. in Otten 20)

and women like Elizabeth Cellier, the outspoken midwife and political activist, whose own visions challenging the status quo were the stuff of urban legends:

And now, Doctor, let me put you in mind, that though you have often laughed at me, and some doctors have accounted me a mad woman these last four years, for saying Her Majesty was full of children, and that the Bath would assist her breeding: ’Tis now proved so true that I have cause to hope myself may live to praise God....
(Cellier, To Dr. ----- An Answer to His Queries,
Concerning the College of Midwives
[1688]; rpt. in Otten 211)

Earlier imprisoned and acquitted for treason over the infamous “Meal Tub Plot,” Cellier was also fined and pilloried for libel in 1680. Robert Hooke even recorded the remarkable event in his diary (entry for 13 Sept. 1680: “... Celier condemned £1000 and Pillory ...”).

What type of “madness” could possibly link the political firebrand, Elizabeth Cellier, with the conservative and bashful Margaret Cavendish in the public mind at the close of the 17th century?


Cavendish anticipated the public ridicule Mad Madge would attract in her Philosophicall Fancies — her smallest book, dashed off in only three weeks in an early burst of creativity during 1652, and published on 21 May 1653, shortly after Margaret’s return to exile in Antwerp. As the title announces, hers was a book of philosophical fancies, not a sober, scholarly inquiry of the sort then in fashion in the schools, which the great Bruno himself had ridiculed in a 1584 publication, Cena de le ceneri, and which Margaret and her husband and countless other reformers within cavalier and republican circles alike all associated with pedantry.

In the context of describing Margaret’s “natural language model” in my dissertation, I wrote about the madness Margaret knew the “World of Learning” would associate with such undisciplined acts of imagination:

Cavendish’s need to probe the mysteries of feminine potential resulted in an all-out indulgence of exploratory play at every level of her discourse. The result was “wild” and impulsive writing which threatened at its very core the self-censorship and carefully-constructed controls — over self, society, natural processes — of New Science discourse (see appendix B). It also ran counter to both male and female subcultures. Sara Mendelson has noted the frequent self-flagellation in women’s writings of the period directed against “an unfettered imagination” (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 176). And Robert Boyle’s life-long struggle against roving thoughts was likewise quite typical for “gentlemen” of the period (ref. B.5). Cavendish’s active indulgence of what her contemporaries referred to as “wandering thoughts” and her obvious delight in recording and publishing their chaotic flurry of activity was thus quite alarming. As she early prophesied in the Philosophicall Fancies, “madness” was the ready explanation of a culture terrified of her ceaseless flirtation with the unbounded and uncharted:
[Reason speaking] Thoughts, run not in such strange phantastick waies,
•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     • 
The World will think you mad, because you run
Not the same Track, that former times have done.
Turn foolish Thoughts, walke in a Beaten Path,
Or else the World ridiculously will laugh.
[Thoughts speaking] Reason forbeare, our Study not molest,
For wee do goe those waies that please us best.
Nature doth give us liberty to run,
Without a Check, more swift far then the Sun. (B3r–B3v)
Such uninhibited mental play was not suited to the linear processing of experience traditionally associated with logical form....
(Bazeley 1990, § 3.4.2)

In truth, few of the natural philosophers of her age would judge Cavendish “mad” because she dared to think outside the scholastic box. A large and diverse group of 17th-century new scientists were equally at odds with the “new grammarian Aristotelianism” of post-Reformation Oxford, which Frances Yates has described as “rigid Aristotelianism, based on a grammatical rather than a scientific foundation.” Institutionalized in Elizabethan Oxford “in certain rather noisy academic circles,” it had supplanted “the older liberalism” of mediaeval philosophy which had flourished at the Oxford of Roger Bacon, a figure who was greatly admired within new science circles across Europe.

As Yates documents, “Prominent Englishmen often expressed their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs at Oxford,” among them, one of Margaret’s own models, the celebrated Sir Philip Sidney: “though a truly Renaissance figure in his deprecation of ‘barbarism,’ [Sidney] was not satisfied with the redistribution of emphasis in English academic learning which the substitution of ‘grammar’ for ‘philosophy’ had brought about.” (Yates 1938)

ANOTHER IMPORTANT CLUE TO THE PEDAGOGICAL AND epistemological issues involved comes from the Athenian Mercury passage itself, quoted in brief on the Mad Madge title page.

According to John Dunton, who wrote the given dialogue on behalf of the Athenian Society, it was popularly held that women of learning would become “too full of themselves, and ... apt to despise others”; “Learning’s make ’em conceited and full of themselves.” But, continued Dunton, such vanity knows no gender: “’tis a weakness common to our own Sex as well as theirs: There’s few Men who have Wit, Sence, or Learning, but they know it, tho’ often they are so prudent to conceal such their Knowledge from the World.”

It was when accomplished and knowledgeable women — in all walks of life, including the arts and sciences — exhibited excessive female pride that they were deemed mad. Bathsua Makin (yet another of the age’s celebrated learned women) said as much in a pedagogical tract published the same year that Margaret died. Since, argues Makin,

... women have been good poets [which requires such hallmarks of sanity as “sublime fancy,” “strong memory” and “excellent judgment”], men injure them exceedingly to account them giddy-headed gossips, fit only to discourse of their hens, ducks, and geese, and not by any means to be suffered to meddle with arts and tongues, lest by intolerable pride they should run mad.
(Makin, An Essay to Revive the Ancient
Education of Gentlewomen
rpt. in Teague 122)

Intertwined as this was with the most important spiritual issues of the age, accusations of vainglory were more than a triumph of patriarchal rhetoric or an unambiguous mark of gender inequalities. Deeply-held social values about character and judgment were at play.

IN THE SAME GENERAL TIME FRAME AS THE ATHENIAN Mercury answer to the query “Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned?”, but across the oceans in the geographic and cultural space of New Spain, the most famous learned woman in the Americas, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, referred to her own passion for science — her ceaseless inquiry and meditation on “natural secrets” and “the workings of the universe” — as “this madness of mine.”

“This manner of reflection has always been my habit,” she acknowledged in the 1691 Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz, “and is quite beyond my will to control.”

To Sor Juana, her genius for arts and sciences — “this ceaseless agitation of my imagination” — was a form of divinely inspired madness that she was powerless to turn from. And this was a common enough conceit at the time, even for those outside the religious life. As Lois Potter observed about one of the 17th century’s political journalists,

Mercurius Elencticus (in a number which was probably Sheppard’s) describes himself as a compulsive writer: “I must confesse I have Gravidum Cor, fetum Caput, a kind of Impostume in my head, which I would be delivered of, and know no other way of Evacuation, that can please me like this” (23 Feb.–1 March 1648).
(Potter 1989)

At the time, even illegal journalism of the sort pursued by Mercurius Elencticus could be explained away, like any other passion for letters and learning and truth-telling, as a form of madness — a force of nature anterior to, and outside of, its author’s conscious control. By 1666, the mature Margaret Cavendish would similarly describe her own compulsive writing and philosophizing as a “disease of wit” with which “the devoutest, wisest, wittiest, subtilest, most learned and eloquent men have been troubled” throughout history. Not only did Margaret choose to openly celebrate “the honour of being thus infected,” but she was unapologetic about the pleasures she took in indulging such madness.

In the letter of admonishment Sor Juana received from Sor Philothea de la Cruz (a psuedonym for the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz) towards the end of 1690, Santa Cruz rebuked Sor Juana not for following her natural human desire for knowing the all, but for losing sight of what he regarded as true wisdom. The bishop knew better than to directly accuse Sor Juana of the practice of “Letters that breed arrogance,” but still, he raised the spectre of women’s “inclination” to vanity for her to ponder:

I do not subscribe to the commonplace view of those who condemn the practice of letters in women, since so many have applied themselves to literary study, not failing to win praise from Saint Jerome. True, Saint Paul says women should not teach, but he does not order women not to study so as to grow wiser. He wished only to preclude any risk of presumptuousness in our sex, inclined as it is to vanity. Divine Wisdom took one letter away from Sarai and added one to the name of Abram, not because man is meant to be more lettered than woman, as many falsely claim, but because the i appended to the name of Sara connoted being swollen up and domineering. Sarai is interpreted as My lady, and it was unfitting that one should be the lady of Abraham’s house whose position was a subordinate one.
Letters that breed arrogance God does not want in women. But the Apostle does not reject them so long as they do not remove women from a position of obedience....
(Letter from Sor Philothea de la Cruz,
postmarked “From this Convent of the Most
Holy Trinity in Puebla de los Angeles,
November 25, 1690”; as translated
in Trueblood 1988, p. 200)

In both old and new worlds, the reigning culture’s assumption of women’s natural predisposition to vanity was a constant rub for the she-philosopher. She carried it about her, as a stigma attaching to her gender, regardless of individual character. This is evident, for instance, even in Aubrey’s unstinting praise of Susan Holder (d. 1688), “a rare shee-surgeon” and the “vertuose wife” of William Holder, F.R.S.,

... who is not lesse to be admired, in her sex and station, then her brother Sir Christopher; and (which is rare to be found in a woman) her excellences doe not inflate her. Amongst many other Guifts she haz a strange sagacity as to curing of wounds, which she does not doe so much by presedents and Reciept bookes, as by her owne excogitancy, considering the causes, effects, and circumstances.
(John Aubrey’s Brief Lives; rpt. in Dick 160)

It was Susan Holder, Christopher Wren’s beloved sister, who cured the royal hand of Charles II when the various treatments of his court doctors had only made the hand wound “much worse,” according to Aubrey. As a result, “the Surgeons ... envy and hate her” — in this case, more a matter of performance than perception. Nonetheless, Aubrey’s account of this talented she-philosopher leaves the impression that it was Susan Holder’s strength of character that he and other Royal Society virtuosi most admired, even more than her medical skills.

She modeled their ideal vertuoso, even as the men sometimes fell a bit short.

But Mad Madge played to type.

There was very little about the public Margaret Cavendish that was ideally modest or discrete.

IF THE PHENOMENON OF MAD MADGE WAS, IN FACT, MORE complicated than we once thought, were 20th-century scholars right to assume that the stigma of Mad Madge was so embedded in the early-modern collective unconscious that Margaret Cavendish became “a negative precedent” (Alic 1986) for succeeding generations of she-philosophers?

For example, claiming that no other woman in England “wrote as boldly on natural philosophy” as Margaret Cavendish, Londa Schiebinger has also wondered why this was. Her answer: “Perhaps the ridicule which Cavendish experienced discouraged other women from serious efforts.” (Schiebinger 1989) The qualifier in Schiebinger’s claim is important because, as she herself admitted, we don’t know much about the sources of “censorious criticism” Cavendish complained about so often.

I hope here to reexamine carefully what it is that we do know, and to offer some new interpretations of the phenomenon of Mad Madge.

I once argued that after Cavendish’s death, Mad Madge was pitted against a new she-philosopher ideal constructed in literature, lectures, and the periodical press by men seeking position within a burgeoning popular science industry. Building on women’s broad interest and active participation in earlier forms of natural inquiry, this industry encouraged women to enter the new scientific fields, but within carefully restricted bounds.

In contrast to this, Mad Madge, I contended, had encouraged women’s public participation, on equal terms, in some of the age’s most important debates about the universe, nature, and humankind. She had pitted her own “natural rational discourse” against the scholarship of learned men, and projected a feminized ethos, engaged in knowledge-seeking for purposes of power, personal glory and fame, as an alternative to that “modest witness” of divine creation idealized in the scientific persona of Robert Boyle (and modelled to Anne Conway by her mentor, the Cambridge Platonist, Henry More).

Mad Madge had some followers, I argued, like the spirited Mary Trye, and the numerous women who continued to privilege the cosmological explanations of judicial astrologers over those of Newtonian science when it came to matters of social and political life. But increasingly, it seemed, future she-philosophers would be less radical and visionary than Mad Madge — less confrontational, and more accomodationist.

This was the legacy of Mad Madge and her particular brand of conservative feminist singularity, I thought.

But I was wrong.

TODAY, I WOULD MAKE A MORE NUANCED AND EQUIVOCAL argument. “Mad Madge”? Yes, and no.

Most recently, I have argued that our received portrait of Margaret Cavendish as an unconventional thinker, ostracized by the literati, and left to contemplate the epitomes of the universe alone in her closet, is a rhetorical construct. Cavendish’s intellectual growth in fact occurred dialogically: she influenced, and was influenced by, contemporary voices engaged in a spiraling act of communication, disputation, and revision.

It is this story of the evolving ethos of Mad Madge, resituated within a heterogeneous new science movement, that I wish to tell now.

[ T O   B E   C O N T I N U E D ]


complete text of Athenian Mercury quote, with the first printed reference to the “mad” Margaret Cavendish

a GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society emblem

an IN BRIEF topic on arguments for and against learned women at the close of the 17th century

on a first-name basis: “Margaret,” and other 17th-century naming conventions

webessay on the origins of the Mad Madge sobriquet

complete text of doctoral dissertation on The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish (UCSD, 1990) in the LIBRARY (Library Cat. No. DTB1990)

a digital monograph (Time, Soul, Memory) describing the heteroglossia entwining Cavendish and Robert Hooke in the LIBRARY (Library Cat. No. DTP2003)

further discussion of “Margaret Cavendish’s Scientific Publications” in the LIBRARY publication, The Growth of Science (Library Cat. No. DTP2000)

an HTML transcription of the “philosophies of the kitchen” passage from Sor Juana’s Respuesta in the LIBRARY (Library Cat. No. JUA1691)

an IN BRIEF biography on the much-admired she-philosopher, Susan Holder

a machine-readable transcription of Wentworth’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 1679 from the Emory Women Writers Resource Project

with forthcoming GALLERY exhibits and webessays:

• “mute Poesie”: The changing iconography of Mad Madge

• Self-fashioning and Baroque camera technologies

• “Memory is Atoms in the Brain set on fire”: Cavendish’s theories of phylogenic memory

• a “studious fancy”: Cavendish’s practice of “fanciful science”

quote from Margaret Cavendish on writing and philosophizing as an honorable “disease of wit”

(from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy):

• “nimis altum sapiunt, too much learning makes them mad” (Pt. 3, Sec. 4, Mem. 2)

• too often, writes Burton, the clergy and others of the “better” sort who are most learned are puffed “up with a vain conceit of their own worth, scientia inflati, they begin to swell, and scorn all the world in respect of themselves, and thereupon turn heretics, schismatics, broach new doctrines, frame new crotchets and the like; or else out of too much learning become mad, or out of curiosity they will search into God’s secrets, and eat of the forbidden fruit; or out of presumption of their holiness and good gifts, inspirations, become prophets, enthusiasts, and what not” (Pt. 3, Sec. 4, Mem. 1, Subsec. 2)

Digital transcriptions of excerpts from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy are available in the LIBRARY

a multi-part GALLERY exhibit, “Portraits of Melancholy,” juxtaposing Burton’s and Cavendish’s self-fashioning as melancholics

(from Thomas Tryon’s Pythagoras His Mystick Philosophy Reviv’d, pub. 1691)

Pride may justly be said to be the chief Procatarick, or remote original cause of Madness; for an abusive Self-flattering Perswasion, Credulity, or Esteem of Falshood, do at first Seduce a person into Presumption, and a despising of others, or into an Indignation of Self-Love, Anger, Hatred, or Wrathfulness, towards his Neighbour; from whence proceeds Irreligion, Unbelief, Superstition, impenitent Arrogancy, drunken Disparation, and sottish Carelesness. For as Faith is the Gate unto Humility, which is the Truth of the Intellector Understanding, so a credulous esteem or judgment of Falshood is the entrance of Presumption and Arrogancy, and the first madness of the Soul.” (pp. 256–7)

Digital transcriptions of some of Thomas Tryon’s works are planned for the LIBRARY

for a brief survey of inherited visual arguments concerning pride as “the source of all evil,” see the GALLERY exhibit on “Medieval Information Design, 12th through 15th centuries”

Tailpiece from Robert Hooke's _Philosophical Experiments & Observations_ (1726)

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