Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is one of the world’s most famous astronomers. He defended Copernicus’s sun-centered universe and discovered that planets move in ellipses.
Born in Weil der Stadt in Swabia, in southwest Germany. Kepler was undoubtedly a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. Today, he is best known for his laws of planetary motion, based on his works Astronomia nova, Harmonices Mundi, and Epitome of Copernican Astronomy.
These works also provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.
Kepler lived during a time when the fear of witchcraft In Europe led to witch hunts and executions. These occurred largely in France, Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and the Low Countries—Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The rate of witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging from a high of 26,000 deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland.
In 1615, when Kepler was at the very height of his scientific career, his mother Katharina Kepler was accused of witchcraft by 24 witnesses.
Among some things Katharina Kepler was accused of magically appearing through closed doors, paralyzing the schoolmaster with a drink of wine and hitting a young girl on the arm, causing inhuman pain.
Even Katharina’s son Heinrich claimed that she had “ridden a calf to death and prepared him a roast dish from it, [and] he himself wanted to accuse her before the authorities.” Because of these charges and others, the elderly Katharina was chained to the floor of a prison cell for more than a year, where she was watched by two guards.In those days, accusations of witchcraft required no evidence of guilt.
The proceedings which led to a criminal trial lasted six years. Johannes Kepler was forced to formally take over his mother’s legal defence. No other public intellectual figure would have ever involved themselves in a similar role.
Well over 70 percent of the accused were women, especially widows, who often had no one to defend them. Victims included the poor, the elderly, and women who dispensed herbal remedies, especially if these failed. No one was truly safe—rich or poor, male or female, lowly or prominent. Kepler’s mother was a widow and more than 70 years old. That made her a perfect suspect and many believed she was a witch
Cambridge professor Ulinka Rublack studied the case and her researcher is presented in the book – The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother
According to Rublack “local records for the small town in which Katharina Kepler lived are abundant. There is no evidence that she was brought up by an aunt who was burnt for witchcraft – this was one of the charges which her enemies invented. There is no evidence either that she made a living from healing – she simply mixed herbal drinks for herself and sometimes offered her help to others, like anyone else.”
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the most admired astronomers who ever lived and a key figure in the scientific revolution. A defender of Copernicus’s sun-centred universe, he famously discovered that planets move in ellipses and defined the three laws of planetary motion. Perhaps less well known is that in 1615, when Kepler was at the height of his career, his widowed mother Katharina was accused of witchcraft. The proceedings led to a criminal trial that lasted six years, with Kepler conducting his mother’s defense.
In The Astronomer and the Witch, Ulinka Rublack pieces together the tale of this extraordinary episode in Kepler’s life, one that takes us to the heart of his changing world. First and foremost an intense family drama, the story brings to life the world of a small Lutheran community in the center of Europe at a time of deep religious and political turmoil – a century after the Reformation and on the threshold of the Thirty Years’ War.
Kepler’s defense of his mother also offers us a fascinating glimpse into the great astronomer’s world view, on the cusp between Reformation and scientific revolution. While advancing rational explanations for the phenomena that his mother’s accusers attributed to witchcraft, Kepler nevertheless did not call into question the existence of magic and witches. On the contrary, he clearly believed in them. And, as the story unfolds, it appears that there were moments when even Katharina’s children wondered whether their mother really did have nothing to hide… Read more:
A woman in her late 70s, Katharina Kepler withstood a trial and final imprisonment.
Kepler’s defence was a rhetorical masterpiece. He was able to dismantle the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, and show that the “magical” illnesses for which they blamed his mother could be explained using medical knowledge and common sense. In the autumn of 1621, Katharina was finally set free.
Katharina was absolved of all charges, but ill-will was running so high, she was forbidden to return to her village. She died six months later. Johannes never told his friends and colleagues why he had been called away from his scientific work; the stigma of a witchcraft accusation was too great.
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