Hardy's title is an ironic allusion to Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751, in which the poet refers to those buried there and their humble rural life:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,Although Hardy's novel does take place in rural Dorset, the passions which tear the characters apart make their life anything but a cool sequestered vale.
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;Along the cool sequestered vale of lifeThey kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
But why did Gray use "madding" rather than "maddening" in the first place?
"Madding" is in fact an earlier word than "maddening". It meant both "becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied" and "driving mad", though it is the first sense that Gray was using in his poem. "Madding" was derived quite regularly from a verb that used to exist, "to mad", meaning "to be or to become mad; to act like a madman, rage, behave furiously." This in turn was quite normally derived from the adjective "mad" (yes, really, it's ok to turn an adjective into a noun, see this post: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-this-verb/)
This verb had its day from the mid 1300s to the early 1800s, and then was replaced in both senses by its much younger (dating from the mid 1700s) offspring, "madden". For some reason, "madden" ceased to be used in the "go mad" sense early in the 20th century, leaving us, surprisingly, without a handy one-word verb for this sense.
I have fond memories of being taken to see the 1967 movie of Far From the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, which I just recently learned comes in at just under 3 hours in length. I am amazed that my parents thought, "Hey let's take the kids to a 3-hour-long adaptation of a Victorian novel about the destructive nature of passion; they'll love it!" But we did love it, and I went home and read the book! I was 9 years old. (Much later, I called one of my cats "Bathsheba".) The moral of the story is: don't expose your children to Thomas Hardy at an early age.
They may become lexicographers.
On a completely unrelated topic, if you are interested in Jewish contributions to ballet, please check out my lecture series starting June 1:
P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at email@example.com
Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady