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**  A second window aside called by the Players page for Margaret Cavendish, entitled
“Rethinking ‘Mad Madge’”  **

First Published:  March 2004
Revised (substantive):  5 July 2021


   The following editorial — replying to a reader query about educated women submitted to the Athenian Society’s popular scientific periodical, The Athenian Mercury — is the first printed reference to a “mad” Margaret Cavendish, who came to be known as “mad Madge of Newcastle” after the Restoration, largely because of her extravagant scholarship and “masculine” literary ambitions. Her contemporaries, such as Samuel Pepys and Dorothy Osborne and Mary Evelyn, may have written privately about the high-ranking Cavendish’s mad behavior and discourses, but no such judgment appeared in print until 1691, and even then, the reference to Mad Madge was an oblique one (“a late Famous Countess” “gone mad with Learning”). Nonetheless, the journal’s editors assumed that Cavendish’s madness was well enough known to their (mostly female) target audience that they needn’t name her outright. (During the interregnum, Margaret Cavendish, known to after ages as the duchess of Newcastle, became fixed in popular culture as “the Countess of Newcastle” — the only title recognized by the republican regime, as is explained here.)
   Of note, there was soon another “Mad Duchess” in the Cavendish family: Elizabeth, duchess of Albemarle, the eldest daughter of Henry, 2nd duke of Newcastle. Born in 1654, Elizabeth — eccentric, and widely known as “the Mad Duchess” by the early 1680s — was the grand-daughter of Margaret’s husband, William, and related to Mad Madge only by way of marriage.

[  Q&A from the pages of a 17th-century periodical  ]

The Athenian Mercury

Opening quotation markWhether it be proper for Women to be Learned?

“ All grant that they may have some Learning, but the question is of what sort, and to what Degree? Some indeed think they have Learn’d enough, if they can distinguish between their Husbands Breaches and another mans: But those who have no more wit than this comes to, will be in danger of distinguishing yet further, or else not at all. Others think that they may pardonably enough read, but by no means be trusted with Writing; and others again, that they ought neither to write nor read. A Degree yet higher, are those who would have ’em read Plays, Novels, and romances, with perhaps a little History, but by all means are for terminating their Studies there, and not letting ’em meddle with the Edge-tools of Philosophy, for these wise Reasons, because forsooth it takes them off their Domestick Affairs, and because it generally fills ’em too full of themselves, and makes ’em apt to despise others. For the first, it’s true enough, that for the generality of Women it holds, who being obliged either to get their Livings by some industrious Employ, or stick close to Domestick Affairs, supposing her Mistress of an ordinary Family, can neither have time nor means to acquire such learning, or preserve it when it is once gotten: But this relates not to those whose Births and Fortunes exempt ’em from such circumstances. For Learning’s make ’em conceited and full of themselves, ’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. On the whole, since they have as noble Souls as we, a finer Genius, and generally quicker Apprehensions, we see no Reason why Women shou’d not be learned now, as well as Madame Phillips, Van Schurman, and other have formerly been: For if we have seen one Lady gone mad with Learning, we mean a late Famous Countess, there are a hundred Men cou’d be named, whom the same Cause has renderd fit for Bedlam.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Vol. 1, no. 18, q. 3 of The Athenian Mercury (1691).
As transcribed in Kathryn Shevelow’s Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 65.
   This same Q&A also circulated in the 18th century after it was reprinted in The Athenian Oracle (4 bound vols., 1703–1710).
   The Athenian Mercury (1691–1697) was edited & published by the bookseller, John Dunton (1659–1733), along with his two brothers-in-law, Samuel Wesley (a polymath and a poet) and Richard Sault (1660?–1702, a mathematician, small poet, and translator), with Dr. John Norris (1657–1711, the Oxford Platonist whose correspondence with his friend, Mary Astell, was printed) making occasional contributions.
   Dunton pioneered the question-and-answer format modeled above, which became synonymous with the Athenian Society’s brand, as captured in the Athenian Society emblem. In his History of the Athenian Society, Charles Gildon “associates Dunton’s choice of the word Athenian with Acts 17.21 [of the Christian bible]: ‘For all the Athenians and Strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some News.’ For Dunton, if not for his collaborators, the scriptural emphasis upon novelty was appropriate. The notion of answering questions without revealing who had asked or answered them was truly unique in a periodical. Commonplace as it is today, in Dunton’s time it was an innovation to be guarded jealously, and as we shall see, ‘Athenian’ Dunton scolded Tom Brown and Daniel Defoe for their exploitations of the idea.” (G. D. McEwen, The Oracle of the Coffee House, 27–28)