Undoing Bayle’s scepticism: Astell’s marginalia as disarmament

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In the margins of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s 1704 edition of Pierre Bayle’s Pensées Diverses (1682), the English feminist Mary Astell wrote a long and scathing critique. Bayle’s book, supposedly an attack on superstitious beliefs about comets, was—in her opinion—full of “sly insinuations” and “vile suggestions” targeted against the Christian religion. Astell’s marginalia provides evidence of the indignation that Bayle provoked, but it also provides a unique and sustained line of attack against his scepticism. The literary form of the marginal note provides Astell with an ideal weapon. Bayle’s style of argument, which relied on his reader to follow through on his anti-Catholic insinuations and the atheistic implications of his texts, demands active engagement and immediate disarmament. In her commentary, Astell turns Bayle’s reason against him: she “undoes” his scepticism by using the very reason he himself deploys. As Bayle became more widely known in England, there were fears about what might happen if his books fell into the hands of the unlearned. The strategic purpose of Astell’s marginalia is to disarm Bayle’s arguments for the benefit of any future reader of the book, but also for one reader in particular—her friend Lady Wortley Montagu.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMarginal Notes
Subtitle of host publicationSocial Reading and the Literal Margins
EditorsPatrick Spedding, Paul Tankard
Place of PublicationCham Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9783030563127
ISBN (Print)9783030563110
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameNew Directionsin Book History
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan

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