A Collection of letters and poems: written by several persons of honour and learning, upon divers important subjects, to the late Duke and Dutchess of Newcastle (1678) is, by and large, an unedifying demonstration at length of Margaret Cavendish’s need for flattery. Buttering up the Duchess as assiduously as anyone was that late proponent of the reality of witchcraft, Joseph Granvill.
However, the vagaries of the Duchess’ writings set him some problems: here he compliments the works of ‘that incomparable princess’ (as she styled herself, appropriating the usual 17th century honorific for Elizabeth I): “Since my receipt of your Grace’s ingenious Works, I have, as my occasions would permit, cast my Eyes again into them, and I am sorry they cannot dwell there, where I find so pleasing, and so instructive an entertainment.”
Isn’t that excellent? (‘I have opened the book here and there, blanched with horror, and looked quickly away’). And he goes on to indicate that she is regularly wrong and always ill-educated (but again, he does it in the nicest possible way): “And though I must crave your Pardon for dissenting from your Grace’s Opinion in some things, I admire the quickness, and vigor of your Conceptions, in all: In which your Grace hath this peculiar among Authors that they are, in the strictest sense, your own, your Grace being indebted to nothing for them, but your own happy Wit, and Genius.” In a later letter, perhaps wanting to spread the burden of readership a bit, he adroitly asks her to present a copy to a library in Bath: “There is in this Place a Library erected, chiefly for the diversion of Gentlemen that come hither upon the occasion of the Bath. There are in it several worthy Authors, but it wants the great Honour and Ornament of the Illustrious Dutchess of New-Castle’s Works.”
The Duchess and Glanvill, who was a clergyman, had discussed the origins of evil. Glanvill summarises: “there is no doubt but (as your Grace suggests) that much wickedness is caused by the meer impulse of Lower Nature; and I believe several Men are determined to Actions of Vice by the odness of their particular make and contexture.” The Duchess then cantered on to the reflection that only God could be perfect. Glanvill inserted a correction – all God’s works can be perfect in their kind, but the Duchess bolted off into Manichaeanism: asserting that “God made nothing” Glanvill says as mildly as he can that this is “a Proposition which methinks your Grace should not own; but some things that follow seem to look that way”. She then further severed the pure realm of God from the material world by denying that God could move from place to place to do material work of creation like a mere ‘mechanic’, and veered back to deny the idea of divine creation out of nothing (“To which I humbly say that if your Grace doubts the possibility of the Creation out of nothing…”).
You will get the picture of Glanvill anxiously trying to corral the Duchess’ freely galloping thoughts. Naturally, Glanvill being what he was, they discussed witchcraft, and here the Duchess emerges, interestingly, as a doubter. I will quote Glanvill, putting her (in his view) right about this, at length. Notice Glanvill’s usual insistence on researching what he sees as real evidence, and doing it ‘suspiciously’. The Duchess was also not satisfied that Jesus had said enough about witchcraft, so Glanvill wades into some of the many things Jesus unaccountably failed to discuss when ‘on the record’, despite their utility to spreading the gospel (and His inconceivable advantages in knowledge). Finally, forgetting that he is dealing with sensible doubts, he argues that if the wonders performed by old women surpass the wonders of virtuosi (the Royal Society and its members), there must be some great power behind them:
1. That whereas your Grace calls the Inducements to the belief of Witches, probable Arguments, I am apt, with submission, to think some of them to be as great demonstrations as matter of Fact can bear; being no less than the evidence of the Senses, and Oaths of sober Attestors, and the critical inquiries of Sagacious, and suspitious Persons; which Circumstances of Evidence, your grace knows, some of those Relations have to prove them. And there is a particular Story which is sufficiently famous, and of part of which I my self was a Witness, which I think is not subject to just Exception. 'Tis that of the Drum in the House of Mr. Mompesson of Tedworth in Wiltshire. Of this, Madam, I shall take an occasion to give your Grace a particular account, if you have not yet been acquainted with the circumstances of that unusual disturbance. But to confine my self now to your Grace's considerations on the subject; The second thing I observe, is,
The intimation of an Argument against the Existence of Witches, because they are not mentioned by Christ, and his Apostles, concerning which I humbly desire your Grace to consider.
1. That Negative Arguments from Scripture use not often to be of any great signification or validity. Our Saviour spake as he had occasion, and the thousandth part of what he said, or what he did, is not recorded, as one Evangelist intimates. He said nothing of those large unknown Tracts of America, gives no intimations of the Existence of that numerous People, much less any instructions about their Conversion. He gives no particular account of the affairs and state of the other World, but only that general one, of the happiness of some, and the misery of others. He makes no discovery of the Magnalia of Art, or Nature, no not of those whereby the propagation of the Gospel might have been much advanced; viz. The Mystery of Printing, and the Magnet. And yet no one useth his Silence in these Instances as an Argument against the being of things, which are the evident Objects of Sense. I confess the omission of some of these particulars is pretty strange and unaccountable, and an argument of our Ignorance of the Reasons and Menages of Providence, but I suppose of nothing else; or if it were, I crave leave to add,
2. That the Gospel is not without intimations of Sorcery, and contracts with evil Spirits. The malicious Jews said our Saviour did his Miracles by their assistance, He casts out Devils by Beelzebub. And he denys not the supposition or possibility of the thing in general, but clears himself by an appeal to the Actions of their own Children, whom they would not so severely criminate. And besides this,
3. The Apostles had intimations plain enough of the being of Sorcery and Witchcraft, as seems to me evident from Gal. 3. 1. Gal. 5. 20. Rev. 9. 21. Rev. 21. 8. Rev, 22. 15.
'Tis very true as your Grace suggests, that Superstition and Ignorance of Causes make Men many times to impute the Effects of Art, and Nature, to Witchcraft and Diabolick Contract. And the Common People think God, or the Devil to be in every thing extraordinary. But yet, Madam, your Grace may please to consider, That there are things done by mean and despicable persons, transcending all the Arts of the most knowing and improv'd Virtuosi, and above all the Essays of known and ordinary Nature. So that we either must suppose that a sottish silly old Woman hath more knowledge of the intrigues of Art, and Nature, than the most exercised Artists, and Philosophers, or confess that those strange things they performe, are done by confoederacy with evil Spirits, who, no doubt, act those things by the ways and applications of Nature, though such as are to us unknown. This, Madam, is, I conceive, as much as is necessary to be said to the Argumentative part of your Graces excellent Letter.
(Image from The World’s Olio, 1655, with the Duchess between Perseus and Apollo, the Medusa’s head held just at the level where Freud would have placed it.)