Money, Sex, Lies, Magic

Malcolm Gaskill

  • The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother by Ulinka Rublack
    Oxford, 359 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 873677 6

In autumn 1937 a statue of Katharina Kepler was unveiled in Eltingen, the village near Stuttgart where she had been born three centuries earlier. Barefoot, wearing a shift, sickle in hand, she represented the ideals of rustic nobility and honest toil cherished by the Third Reich. The mayor said that Frau Kepler also stood for the determination to uphold truth in the face of persecution: accused of diabolism, she had resisted. The ‘witch craze’ of the 16th and 17th centuries was a subject that appealed to the Nazis; Himmler set up a historical research department to look into it. German witches were seen either as innocent victims of ecclesiastical oppression, völkisch heroines for an anticlerical dictatorship, or as degenerates, justly exterminated in a campaign to purify society.

Ulinka Rublack’s book about Katharina Kepler, and her son’s extraordinary defence of her, is fine-grained microhistory, but it’s also revealing of the larger ideas that framed their world. There was a kaleidoscopic array of opinion about the substance and operation of the universe. In this context how could the crime of witchcraft be proved? Was it even possible? Eighteenth-century philosophers lumped together fanatical demonologists and peasant mobs, the better to compare a benighted past unfavourably with an enlightened present. In reality, people from the top to the bottom of the social order displayed doubting, discerning tendencies. Superstition and science, rather than being successive stages in the ascent of reason, co-existed so closely and dynamically that the definition of neither is reliable. The Astronomer and the Witch illustrates this complexity, and its transitions, with agility and sensitivity.

In the Austrian town of Linz on 29 December 1615, Johannes Kepler received devastating news. Three months earlier, his mother’s neighbours in Leonberg, a walled town in the duchy of Württemberg, had accused her of inflicting sickness on them using witchcraft. Lutheran pastors preached that witches could not cause harm, and that only the devil, with God’s permission, wielded such power; but there was no agreement on this point. Katharina had sued for slander, but her opponents belonged to a powerful faction which was after her blood. As a 68-year-old widow of modest means and status, she would need all the help she could get to avoid the fate of a convicted witch.

Her son had come up in the world. He was 44, a gifted scholar from peasant stock who had won a place at Tübingen University to read theology. Even with a scholarship, the cost to his family had been great: they could not afford for Johannes to study law, and his grandfather had pawned a meadow to support his studies. But the investment had paid off. Kepler soon found himself in the service of the Habsburg emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague, where he worked as astronomer and astrologer (they didn’t see the distinction that we do). From 1600 to 1612, the illiterate Katharina had corresponded with her son through a local schoolmaster.

Four days after receiving the bad news about ‘his beloved, aged mother’, Kepler wrote to the magistrate in Leonberg to plead for leniency. But he had to tread carefully. He had drifted from the Lutheran orthodoxy of faith in Christ’s real presence in the communion bread and wine towards a Calvinist belief in a symbolic presence. Tübingen shunned him for this dissent. Rudolph’s court had been a tolerant, freethinking haven, but since the emperor’s death in 1612, strict enforcement of Catholicism in the Habsburg territories had made it wise for any Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist, to leave. Kepler had moved to Linz, where he found work as a teacher and cartographer. The University of Bologna offered him a proper job in 1616; Italy was even more dangerous than Germany for a Protestant. In the same year, the inquisition forced Galileo to recant his geocentric heresy, an idea which Kepler endorsed.

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