Book Review: The Astronomer and the Witch, Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother

Review by Duncan Lunan

The Cover of The Astronomer and the Witch , a painting of Kepler

The Astronomer and the Witch, Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother (2015) Ulinka Rublack, Oxford University Press, £20.00, hrdbk, 359pp plus 32*, ISBN 978-0-19-873677-6.

* This book’s unusual layout includes a Prologue with Roman numeral pages ending at xxxii.   However the first seven of those are the title pages, indicia, dedication, extracts from book reviews and a blank page, none of which would ordinarily be counted.

(First published in Concatenation, online, 15th April 2016.)

No history of astronomy is complete without mentioning that Johannes Kepler had to defend his mother against charges of witchcraft;  and in most of them it is just that, a mention.  In the ‘Watershed’ section of The Sleepwalkers  (Fig. 2), most of whose 197 pages are devoted to Kepler  (Fig. 3), Arthur Koestler gives the witch-trial just 4½ pages, ending “It was against this background that Kepler wrote the Harmony of the World, in which the third planetary law was given to his engaging contemporaries”  (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 4. Kepler’s 3 laws of planetary motion

Those 4½ pages are at least 4 pages more than most books give it:  Toulmin and Goodfield’s The Fabric of the Heavens, which was the set text on the history when I ‘did’ astronomy, doesn’t give it a mention, and Kepler’s Wikipedia page covers it in just one sentence.  Stuart Clark’s novel The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth  (Polygon, 2011 – Fig. 5)  captures the essence of the affair, but reduces it to just a preamble and two short scenes, undated but set between 1612 and 1623.  The reality is that Katharina’s estranged younger son called her a witch in 1615, and the case brought against her by neighbours began that year.  Kepler was made aware of the problem in December 1615, and he had to relocate first himself and then his family to cope with it, finally gaining his mother’s acquittal in September 1621.

The cover of the Sky's Dark Labyrinth with the full page taken up with the back of Kepler's head
Fig. 5. The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth

So it’s intriguing, even refreshing, to read a book covering those six years from the opposite perspective.  Ulinka Rublack has little interest in the revolution in science which Kepler was inadvertently leading  (‘sleepwalking’, as Koestler puts it).  Where she does mention his work, she’s more interested in his  erroneous ideas about animism in nature, and how they relate to his practise as an astrologer, as he trod the precarious path between science and his Lutheran beliefs, Roman Catholicism and ‘heretical’ Calvinism – the issues which are Stuart Clark’s main themes.   But Rublack’s major interest is in how the case illustrates the tensions surrounding the witch trials themselves, in a part of Germany where the forces of reason were trying with mixed success to restrain the use of torture and the executions, though their hands were tied by the need to accept that the Devil and witchcraft were nevertheless real and a danger to society.

Rublack is keen to demolish two modern myths about the case.  Her biography of Katharina makes it clear that she had a difficult life and that made her a difficult person, much given to commenting on her neighbours’ business, to the extent of entering their houses uninvited to give them the benefit of her advice.  One can understand what prompted Kepler to write in a moment of frustration that she herself was ‘the cause of all her troubles’, ‘the author of her own lamentable misfortune’.  But Rublack points out that she was never taken to court on a charge of ‘quarrelling’, as was common at the time.  There’s nothing to justify modern suggestions that she actually dabbled in the black arts, presumably on the grounds that there’s no smoke without fire  (as the prosecutors of the time would doubtless have alleged).  There are still fewer grounds for the alternative suggestion that the charges were fabricated as an attack on Kepler and his Copernican views:  the nearest thing to that is that Katharina was illiterate, and the local schoolmaster grew tired of reading her Kepler’s letters, especially those where he tried to tell her about his work.

Given Katharina’s support for Kepler’s studies in his teens, and the progress reports which he sent her in adult life, it surprises me that there’s no suggestion that she might have been dyslexic.  But it’s more surprsing that there isn’t more character analysis of her accusers.  The charges leading to her eventual arrest were first laid by the wife of a glazier, at a drinking party hosted by the local governor.  Over the next six years, they referred the case to successively higher tiers of authority, dragging in witnesses whose testimony Kepler was able to demolish, showing that they couldn’t have known what was alleged, or were too young at the time to remember it convincingly.  The accusers responded with increasingly strident demands for Katherina’s torture.  It reads like desperation, as if they were trying to force a conclusion to something which began in drink, spiralled out of control, and was increasingly likely to bounce back on them as the Kepler family pressed their counter-suit for defamation – an aspect of the case I never heard mentioned before.  (Stuart Clark puts his finger on these points, without quite making their significance explicit).  At the last level of escalation in the case, Katharina was finally acquitted after being subjected to ‘verbal torture’, which included being shown the instruments and having their functions described as if they were to be used.  Upon her release the Keplers immediately renewed their defamation case and would probably have won it if Katharina had not died soon afterwards.

It’s worth noting that ‘verbal torture’ was the ordeal under which Galileo caved in, 12 years later.   Rublack and Clark make nothing of that, but Koestler draws a distinction between territio realis, in which the instruments were shown, and territio verbalis, in which they were merely described, noting without comment that Katharina withstood the more severe threat.  He might have added that she was older than Galileo, by two years, but still held her ground.  Rublack does point out what that shows about her strength of character, despite Kepler’s earlier attempts to excuse her as frail and senile.

For science fiction readers, especially those into the history of SF, the main interest may be the motivation which the case provided for the work Kepler tackled next.  He had written Somnium, ‘The Dream’, in 1609, as an imaginary voyage to the Moon inspired by Galileo’s discoveries  (Fig. 6).   Lacking physical means to take his character to the Moon, Kepler has him transported there by a daemon  (not a demon – compare Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), summoned by his mother, who is an Icelandic white witch, as we would say nowadays.  In Science and Fiction  (Harrap, 1957 – Fig. 7), Patrick Moore explicitly links the story to the witch-trial. 

After Katharina’s death it seems that Kepler became preoccupied by the same idea, deducing routes by which the manuscript copies which he circulated 12 years earlier might have fallen into the hands of Katharina’s persecutors, who lacked the wit to understand that it wasn’t a literal portrayal of his own  mother, or that his heroine was a healer, not a devil-worshipper.  It seems an unlikely reason for the prosecution, given the more prosaic explanations above – but to refute it, to set his own mind at rest, Kepler prepared a new version for publication with detailed explanations throughout, so turning what was already the first SF novel since Lucian of Samos into what Rublack calls “the world’s first meta-text”.  The annotated version wasn’t published until 1630, just before Kepler’s death, and Rublack dismisses it as ‘a curio’.  But Patrick Moore thought it ‘almost certain’ that a manuscript copy reached Bishop Godwin, in England, and influenced him to write The Man in the Moone, which quickly inspired more such ‘imaginary voyages’ when it was published in 1638, all contributing to the evolution of SF as we know it today.

The Astronomer and the Witch is not light reading, either in content or physically, and the 303 pages of main text are followed by 40 pages of academic notes.  A few of Kepler’s astronomical observations are briefly mentioned, but his work on the laws of planetary motion, or on the Rudolphine Tables, are not what this book is about;  it belongs on the shelves of social history, and only a completist would file it under astronomy.  But if you are a completist  (like me!)  the background story which it supplies is fascinating.  

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2 replies »

  1. It was, and is, dangerous to be different.

    I’m reminded of what Tori Herridge says about how many advances in science were being made at a time when people still pointed the finger at folk for being ‘witches’…I mentioned that, in this piece…..

    Ian Marchant writes very well, and thoroughly, of how science was ‘taking off’ around that time in his recent book – ‘One Fine day’. In my review I don’t tell people much – just, hopefully, enough to tempt them to read the book…..

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