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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):  16 May 2022


   The following editorial — replying to a reader query about educated women submitted to the Athenian Society’s journal of popular science etc., 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 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 markQuest. 6.  Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned?

“ Answ.  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 ’em off from 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 Philips, Van Schurman, and others 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 rendred fit for Bedlam.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Vol. 1, no. 18, q. 6 of The Athenian Mercury (issue dated Saturday, 23 May 1691). A slightly different transcription is given in Kathryn Shevelow’s Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 65. I am grateful to Dr. Shevelow for pointing me to this passage many years ago.
   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.
   An “extraordinary” & influential publication in its day, The Athenian Mercury appealed to a diverse audience. Its numbers were read by everyone from Fellows of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge ... to the brilliant satirist Jonathan Swift (like Margaret Cavendish, yet another eccentric writer rumored to have been “mad”), who addressed a commemorative “Ode to the Athenian Society” in February 1691, upon deciding that the anonymous learned society had restored the charms of Queen Philosophy ... to that special-interest block of ladies whose growing numbers merited a separate women’s issue: “Whereas the Questions we receive from the Fair Sex are both pressing and numerous, we being willing to oblige ’em, as knowing they have a very strong party in the World, resolve to set apart the first Tuesday in every month on purpose to satisfie Questions of that Nature.” (The Athenian Society, Advertisement, The Athenian Mercury, Numb. 18, dated 23 May 1691, n. pag.)
   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)
   The above Q&A, first published in May 1691, continued to circulate in the 18th century, upon being reprinted in The Athenian Oracle (4 bound vols., 1703–1710), where its late-17th-century rhetoric of equality — which, as Shevelow notes, still “defined equality in a way consistent with the notion of a natural difference between men and women” (Women and Print Culture, 66) — was offset by more conventional essentialist stereotypes concerning feminine intellect in a supplemental series of four Q&As on the subject “Of Knowledge in Women.” Here, the Athenian Society expanded on themes first broached in the above Q&A (“Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned?”), this time emphasizing the dangers of making those sworn to obedience (women) “too full of themselves.”
   To the first question — “Is it expedient that Women should be learned?” — the Athenian Society answered: “Knowledge puffeth up the Mind; therefore if Women were Learned, they would be prouder and more unsupportable than before. Besides, a good Opinion of themselves is inconsistent with the Obedience they are design’d for. Therefore God gave Knowledge to Adam, and not to Eve, who by the bare desire of Knowledge destroyed all.”
   The second question in the four-part series — “Why are they not Learned as Men? are they not capable to become such?” — was answered by the Athenian Society as follows: “They are too delicate to acquire Knowledge, which is not obtain’d but with great Fatigue. Besides the moisture of their Brain hindreth solidity of Judgment, which is so necessary for the Sciences.”
   To the third question — “Why have they not solidity of Judgment?” — the Athenian Society answered: “Because the Judgment is an Act of the Understanding, which reflecteth upon its Knowledge, and this Reflection dependeth on a dry Temperature, which is contrary to that of the Brain of Women.”
   And to the fourth question — “Have none of them been Learned?” — the Athenian Society answered: “Yes, but ’tis extraordinary. Besides, if we consider their Works, they are always accompanied with lack of Judgment: They acquit themselves pretty well in their first Essays, but not in their second Thoughts, which are always meaner than the first: On the contrary, Mens second Thoughts surpass their first, by reason of a stronger Judgment that is in Men than is in Women.” (The Athenian Society, A Supplement to the Athenian Oracle in The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries ..., 4 vols., new edn., rpt. 1728, 4.327–328)
   For an early-modern woman’s perspective on the patriarchal debate over female education, see the Editor’s Introduction for the digital reissue (2014) of Thomas Tryon’s The Planter’s Speech to his Neighbours & Country-Men of Pennsylvania, East & West-Jersey ... (1684) at our sister project known as Roses; specifically:
   Click/tap here and here and here for discussion of Bathsua Makin’s innovative Comenian pedagogy for girls.
   Sarah Jinner’s innovative use of almanacs for educating women is discussed here and here.
   and Click/tap here and here for discussion of Margaret Cavendish’s self-consciously elitist, protofeminist challenge to “Man’s Prerogative” of education.