University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Beyond 'polite science': middling women and the thirst for natural knowledge in the late eighteenth century

Beyond 'polite science': middling women and the thirst for natural knowledge in the late eighteenth century

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Despite richly varied discussions on the state of natural knowledge in the second half of the eighteenth century, middling women have occupied little or no space in the dominant historiography. In recent years there has been an increased focus on elite women’s engagement in a range of intellectual endeavours, most notably botanical classification. But the central vitality of everyday embodied practices and practical knowledge demonstrated by middling women within the household, and their engagement with natural philosophy beyond the domestic setting has been almost entirely ignored.

This paper argues that provincial women of the middling sort demonstrated hitherto unrecognised engagement with natural philosophy. By way of illustration, it traces two women’s very different involvement with the production and transmission of natural knowledge and examines to what extent this was driven by the demands of domestic ‘oeconomy’, sociability, religious belief and conscious self-improvement, rather than a search for ‘polite knowledge’. Jane Ewbank, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a York druggist, demonstrated the breadth of her interest in the natural world in her Journal (1803–05), from observing a crocodile to visiting rural-industrial sites and attending lectures on natural philosophy, chemistry and galvanism. Mary Stacey, the wife of a farmer in rural Somerset, used her family recipe collection to document the results of her search for domestic improvement much in the manner of a laboratory notebook.

In a period which sought to encourage and celebrate women’s knowledge of areas like dairying while limiting their access to scientific debate, the paper highlights the (often unseen) impact of print material and conversation on middling women’s construction of the natural world. It teases out their observational and reflective practices, identifying shifts in the parameters of their knowledge and suggests the ways in which both Stacey and Ewbank sought to transmit their understanding to other women.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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