30 June: Family Resemblances

I’m working on a little biographical entry for the Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy (published by Springer, and available online) on Sir Charles Cavendish, the younger brother of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle and husband to the amazing Margaret Cavendish. The Cavendishes were one of the richest and most eminent families of the time and contributed to wonderfully to the life of the sciences and letters both as patrons and performers, as it were. They were not only engaged in the public discourse on natural philosophy in England, but maintained a vast and prestigious network on the continent, communicating with mathematicians and philosophers alike. The European republic of letters.

The Cavendish brothers were very well versed in mathematics themselves, but they also sponsored scholars and practitioners, especially opticians. They collected and commissioned instruments such as telescopes, and worked closely together with England’s best optician Richard Reeves whom they wanted to grind aspheric lenses. Apparently, these create hyperboles which correct aberrations when light enters the telescope (I think? Physics is awfully hard…) and which were all the rage at the time, but incredibly difficult to make. Before the Renaissance, it used to be rare that thinkers and craftsmen were working together like that, closely cooperating on the translation of thought into reality. Theory and practice at its best, mutually influencing each other, very Renaissance that. Just think of Erasmus and Froeben in his shop, or Spenser and Hugh Singleton at work together on The Shepheardes Calendar, correcting the proofs, creating the thing exactly the way they wanted it to be. Or as nearly as possible, anyway.

While Charles Cavendish was perhaps not an original thinker, his great achievement lies in his connections, and his enabling of others’ research. A modern funding body. His brother, of course was married to Margaret Cavendish who suited the family, hungry for modern scientific knowledge as she was. But I want to write about her in a later blog entry, I think. I’d like to mention Elizabeth and Jane, daughters of William’s first wife. They were very well-educated young women, growing up in a household that encouraged learning, and especially writing as self-expression. Sir William was a playwright himself, and the girls will certainly have enjoyed domestic entertainments such as household plays, performed or read. It’s no surprised, then, that they go and write their own plays, a pastoral and a comedy called The Concealed Fancies around 1645 while their royalist father was in exile, and they took care of the estates. The plays only exist in manuscript, although Daniel Cadman of Sheffield Hallam University has transcribed The Concealed Fancies, and written an introduction, both freely online available here. I’m glad the edition and contextual work is online, since we as readers and teachers must diversify the canon and include literary examples from a much wider range of authors and contexts. Thinking of how to sneak this one in into the timetable for teaching this Michaelmas…

Check out this In Our Time session on the Cavendishes and science.