skip to primary navigation skip to content

Mark Burden, University of Bristol

We know very little about the publication history of Conway’s philosophical writings aside from what may be gleaned from the publications themselves. The Latin edition of Conway’s Principia (1690) contains a brief preface ‘Ad lectorum’ (1690), which was translated as ‘To the Reader’ in the English language edition (the Principles of 1692). This short text states that the ‘little Treatise’ was written ‘not many Years ago’ by a ‘certain English Countess’, although it provides no further indication of the period of composition and does not explicitly name Conway as the author. Most scholars assume that the text was written late in Conway’s life, perhaps in the decade before her death in 1679, particularly on the grounds that it incorporates some of the Cabbalistic ideas which Conway almost certainly discussed with Henry More and Francis van Helmont at her estate in Ragley. There are also some brief references to Spinoza in the final chapter of the text. Despite the recent opining of some scholars, there is no evidence that Spinoza’s texts circulated in pre-printed manuscript form within the Cudworth-More-Conway circle; Conway’s knowledge of Spinoza would have post-dated the publication of his Principia philosophiæ Cartesianæ (1663), and may have included his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) to which More wrote a response and which features in passing in Cudworth’s True Intellectual System, but there is no reason to assume that she had read his Ethics (1677) before she began writing her own text.

By the time of the text’s Latin publication in 1690, however, Spinoza’s Ethics was well known, and this may explain the rather grand claims on the 1690 and 1692 title pages that the text ‘resolved all those Problems of Difficulties, which, neither by the School nor Common Modern Philosophy, nor by the Cartesian, Hobbesian, or Spinosian, could be discussed’. Both the Latin title (Principia philosophiæ antiquissimæ & recentissimæ) and the English title (The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy) are most likely editorial: because Conway’s autograph/holograph manuscript has disappeared, we have no way of judging whether she gave her text a title, or even if its published structure reflects the structure of her manuscript. According to the 1690 title page, the earlier Latin text was translated ‘E Lingua Anglicana’, and the 1692 title page clarifies this by stating that it had been ‘translated out of the English into Latin, with Annotations taken from the Ancient Philosophy of the Hebrews; and now again made English’. From this we may gather that Conway probably wrote her treatise in English, and that the notorious Cabbalistic annotations at the end of the first couple of chapters were added by her editors, and do not reflect her own sources. It is perhaps unfortunate that Conway is so persistently read in relation to the Cabbalistic texts cited in these Annotations, many of which were printed after her death: arguably, they have obscured the extent and nature of her achievement, and have resulted in readings which would have pleased More and van Helmont rather than Conway herself.

We also read in the preface ‘To the Reader’ that Conway’s manuscript was ‘found after her Death’ and only ‘partly transcribed (for the rest could scarcely be read)’, being written in ‘a very dull and small Character’. Thus, the evidence suggests that the Principia/Principles does not contain the entirety of Conway’s manuscript, and that it contains supplementary notes provided by her editors. Given this situation, we cannot assume that the descriptive headnotes to each chapter were produced by Conway, or even that the chapter divisions are her own. Neither can we assume either that she viewed her manuscript notes as a complete or self-contained text, or that her manuscript concluded with the discussion of motion, sense and knowledge to be found in chapter 9 of the printed versions. Perhaps most importantly, there is no indication that the 1692 editors had access to Conway’s original manuscript: indeed, the editor’s statement that the text had been ‘now again made English’ suggests rather that Latin text was subjected to a fresh translation into English and that Conway’s own manuscript was not consulted. This process of translation and retranslation may help to explain some of the inconsistencies of the text’s definitions of ‘body and ‘spirit’, compounded by the fact that the original manuscript was clearly not in a state ready for publication at Conway’s death.

The editor/translator of the 1692 Principles, ‘J. C.’, has never been firmly established; he has been variously identified with the philosopher Jodocus Crull, or with one of the many men named ‘John Clark[e]’ who studied at one of the English universities between 1650 and 1690. There was also a J. C. (John Chandler) who edited the works of van Helmont’s father, Jean Baptiste van Helmont, in 1664, but this man was probably no relation to the translator of Conway. J. C. states that he encountered Conway’s text while on a visit to Holland, and ‘in Conference with the renowned F. M. B. van Helmont, then resident at Amsterdam’. During their conversation, J. C. asked van Helmont if he had published ‘any new Books of his own, or others Works’; van Helmont encouraged him to ‘procure certain Books, published by his Order’, including ‘the Works of an English Countess’. J. C.’s statement have led some unwary critics to assume that he was chiefly responsible for the publication of Conway’s 1690 Principia, and even that he may have been its translator into Latin. However, here again we should be cautious: this is not quite what J. C. says, and his account is itself based only on van Helmont’s report. The likelihood is that More also helped to preserve and interpret Conway’s text in the period prior to his death in 1687. This was certainly the opinion of More’s eighteenth-century biographer, Richard Ward, who wrote of ‘a Design once (from certain Hands I could mention) of Printing some Remains of this Excellent Lady’ (Ward, Henry More, 202). Ward prints a six-paragraph account of Conway’s character, apparently signed by Helmont but attributed by Ward to More (pp. 203-9). In the event, this text was not used in the prefatory matter to the 1690 Principia or the 1692 Principles, but it stands as a witness that the preparation of Conway’s manuscript writings for publication was a collaborative effort over several years.

When the text appeared in 1692 it was accompanied by two other texts, not written by Conway, which were sold under the group title Opuscula philosophica. Like so much about Conway’s texts, we do not know who the printer was. The place of publication is listed as Amsterdam, which is consistent with J. C.’s account and further evidence of van Helmont’s involvement. However, despite extensive comparison with other Amsterdam publications of the period, it has not been possible to establish any further information about the press. The structure of the Opuscula philosophica is as follows:

1. Principia philosophiæ

2. Philosophia vulgaris refutata

3. Problemata de revolutione animarum humanarum

Only the first of these items was written by Conway. The Philosophia vulgaris refutata was the second edition of a text by an obscure figure called ‘J. G.’ (his last name may have been ‘Gironnet’), who produced a Theologia vulgaris refutata (1668), as well as the first edition of the Philosophia (1670). The Problemata is a Latin translation of an English text by van Helmont himself, his Two Hundred Queries (1684). It is sometimes stated that the Principia was the second work in the Opuscula volume, following the Philosophia, but this notion is based on an erroneous analysis of copies in which the texts have been rebound in another order. Furthermore, the preface to the Dauphin which is found in all complete copies of the Opuscula volume is sometimes considered to be part of the Principia, but is neither a preface to that text, nor a general preface to the volume, but part of the introductory materials for the Philosophia vulgaris refutata. The mistaken attribution of the preface to the Principia is based on a copy in which the rebinding meant that the wrong prefaces were assigned to the wrong texts: it provides no comment on Conway’s text.

The number of copies of the Opuscula which were produced was probably very small, and the print run for the English Principles was probably also very low. Leibniz owned a copy, and the text was clearly known to More, van Helmont, J. C., Leibniz, and Ward, but from the mid eighteenth century, references to the text in other printed works virtually disappear. In the catalogue of the British Museum of 1817, both the Opuscula and the Principles were listed without any indication of authorship, a situation which may reflect a lack of interest in the texts at this date; on the other hand, however, the authorship of the Principles was sufficiently well known by 1847 for James Crossley to refer to Conway and her writings in his edition of The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington, vol. 1 (p. 141).

Copies of the 1690 Opuscula may be consulted in the following libraries:

  • University of Cambridge, University Library, L.22.9
  • University of Oxford, Christ Church Library Hyp.N.41 and d.8.32
  • University of Oxford, Queen’s College Library FF.g.490]
  • University of Pennsylvania Libraries, EC65 C7696 Ef690h
  • Case Western Reserve University, BX3705.A2H38 1690
  • University of California, Los Angeles, B69.H45 O68 1690
  • State University of New York, Binghamton University Libraries, Glenn G. Bartle Library, Microfilm 1068 reel 15
  • Universitaetsbibliothek der Eberhard Karls Universitaet Tuebingen, Aa 313, Aa 314
  • Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Ph. u. 517 s
  • Universitaetsbibliothek Muenchen, 0001/8 Philos. 1406
  • Landesbibliothek Oldenburg, PHIL I 3 124
  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek – Niedersaechsische Landesbibliothek, P-A 1153
  • Niedersaechsische Staats- und Universitaetsbibliothek Goettingen, 8 PHIL I, 1386 (1)
  • Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek / Klassik Stiftung Weimar, 16,8:48
  • Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Haus Potsdamer Strasse, Nb 911
  • Bibliotheque nationale de France, R-25610/25611/25612
  • Bibliotheque nationale et universitaire, Strasbourg, B.104.398
  • Oesterreiches Nationalbibliothek, 71.V.107
  • Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, A01 1454333 / SALA FARN. 25. A 0053

ESTC records copies of the 1692 Principles at the following UK and North American libraries:

  • British Library
  • Cambridge University, Trinity College Library
  • Dr Williams’s Library
  • Chetham’s Library, Manchester
  • National Library of Scotland
  • Oxford University, Bodleian Library
  • Oxford University, Exeter College
  • Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Harvard University
  • Library Company of Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Toronto
  • Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Cite as: Publication History of Anne Conway’s Works,, accessed 2019-12-10.