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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Here at the Museum, we’re interested both in how animals have changed our human society, as well as the effect humans have had on animal society. Today, our newest education intern Karly Abreu offers us a look at Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), a poet and early advocate for animal welfare.
In her day, Margaret Cavendish was an unusual woman. She was a member of the English aristocracy, known popularly as the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was an accomplished writer in a variety of genres, being a pioneer of science fiction but also well known for prolific philosophy and poetry. Highly logical, she was also a scientist. She was, most notably, one of the earliest supporters of animal welfare.
During Cavendish’s lifetime, the late 1600s and early 1700s, animal welfare was considered a trivial subject. English society generally agreed upon the idea that man had dominion over beast, and left it at that. Cavendish, as a scientific mind, believed that animals had intelligence and wisdom that was beyond the human ability. She rejected the idea that God’s gift of the soul was only given to man.
While her ideas on animal nobility are prevalent in her 1666 novel The Blazing World, which features a world of human-animal hybrids, her ideas are most on display in her compelling poem “The Hunting of the Hare.”
Published in 1653, this poem is told from the point of view of a hare named Wat, and describes in detail the horror and helplessness Wat feels while being hunted. The poem both humanizes the hare by giving him palpable emotions and an identifiable name, and dehumanizes those hunting him by making them seem foreign and dangerous. In this way the poem builds much sympathy for the hare, and ends with an admonishment to consider God’s gift of animal life and the needless waste in sport hunting. It ends with a damning line that accuses men of a God complex and the sin of Pride:
[Man is] so Proud, that he only thinks to Live, / That God a God-like Nature him did give, / And that all Creatures for his Sake alone / Were made, for him to Tyrannize upon.
The poem was shocking at the time both for villainizing a common aristocratic sport and for calling attention to the livelihood of animals. This is a trend which Cavendish would carry through most of her writing, as in her similar poems “The Hunting of the Stag” and “Dialogue with an Oake,” as she continually criticized the faults of man against the nobility of nature. Perhaps too aristocratic to be considered merely an eccentric, Cavendish made waves in her social circles. Her connections and unique opinions even allowed her an audience with the Royal Society, a social circle known for their scientific experiments, many of which were done on animals.
While Cavendish did not change the laws, she was noble and respected enough to garner attention in her society and gain an audience with those most responsible for influencing said laws. In a time and place where neither women nor animals were taken very seriously, Margaret Cavendish accomplished much.