One of the greatest scientists in history, Johannes Kepler, saved his mother from being burned as a witch almost 400 years ago. Ulinka Rublack, author of The Astronomer and the Witch, explains the extraordinary tale
“Johannes Kepler was a major figure of the early modern scientific revolution and is widely regarded as one of the greatest astronomers who ever lived. His laws of planetary motion helped to lay the foundations for modern astronomy and physics, and a planet, NASA mission and spacecraft have all since been named after him.
© Wikimedia Commons
But the most dramatic episode in Kepler’s life remains little-known: in 1620, he abandoned his work to save his mother, Katharina, from being brutally tortured and burned at the stake on a charge of witchcraft.
Katharina’s case has received limited attention, often in biographies and fictional treatments. Some of these accounts have recycled fabricated evidence that was used by the prosecution at the time for dramatic effect, leaving the impression that Katharina was certainly a woman of dubious character. Kepler’s own image sometimes fares little better.
Usually, when we try to find out about historical witchcraft trials, there is limited evidence available.
In this case, it was possible to reconstruct the whole story. That means we can use Katharina’s case to explore the often overlooked question of how these trials affected individuals and families in sharp focus and harrowing detail.
Remote as the idea may seem to modern audiences, many people in Early Modern Europe genuinely believed that the devil and his army of witches were trying to subvert Christianity. Between 1500 and 1700 this paranoia spiralled into a frenzy of witch-hunts.
Perhaps as many as 50,000 people – mostly women – were executed as witches, or as they were sometimes called in England, “cunning folk”.
© Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The climate of fear reached its peak in the German states, including Johannes Kepler’s native Württemberg, and the experiences of its victims were often horrific. Torture was frequently used to extract a confession, after which the alleged witch was burned.
The evidence from Katharina’s own case has been remarkably well preserved because of her son’s involvement. The complete trial papers are held in the regional archives in Stuttgart, while Rublack was also able to consult numerous surviving local archives to place the trial in its historical context.
These reveal the terrifying prospect that Katharina would have faced when she was accused in 1615. In Württemberg, the most common form of torture for alleged witches was to stretch the woman by pulling her up on a wheel – a departure from the more generic use of thumbscrews.
Two years earlier, the lawyers of Tübingen, who later tried Katharina, had decided to show mercy to one woman who was destined for the stake by tying a bag of gunpowder to her upper body, so that her heart would be ripped out as soon as it came into contact with the flames.
Katharina’s own trial began in 1615 when she was accused by neighbours in her home town of Leonberg. At the time, she was 68, and the case would drag on for six draining years. For the last 14 months, she was held in appalling conditions in a prison cell, attached to the floor with an iron chain.
The “evidence” brought against her included claims that Katharina had poisoned people with wine and herbal remedies, killed local livestock, and that she could turn herself into a cat. Even close friends warned that she would probably be executed.
In 1620, however, as the trial reached its peak, Johannes Kepler stepped in. Abandoning his studies in the Austrian city of Linz, the scientist put his life on hold and moved his family to southern Germany to lead his mother’s defence. No other public intellectual would ever involve himself in a similar role.
His defence was a pioneering triumph of reason over the abuse and counterclaim that usually characterised witch trials. Having spent years defending his views in academic circles, Kepler 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.
Friends in high places may also have helped. After Kepler’s withering defence, the lawyers of Tübingen demanded a final trial in which Katharina was shown the instruments of her torture.
The idea was to terrify her into confessing, but Kepler had contacts among the lawyers themselves, who may have tipped him off that the act was only for show, and that no real torture was planned.
In the autumn of 1621, Katharina was finally set free. Yet the study shows that the experience had been devastating for her and her family. Both Kepler’s brother and sister had distanced themselves from their own mother to protect their reputations. Exhausted, Katharina herself died just six months after the trial’s close.
Kepler was also haunted by what had happened. Returning to Linz, he found a story he had written in his youth describing a clever young man and his witch mother.
Kepler began to construct a scenario in his own mind in which this narrative, featuring as it did clear parallels with him and his mother, had leaked into public consciousness in Leonberg, and ultimately led to Katharina’s prosecution.
Riddled with guilt, Kepler later published this piece, entitled Dream, with reams of footnotes explaining that any resemblance was pure conjecture. His intense feelings of guilt and anger after his mother’s death are likely to have been a psychological reaction after the immense emotional strain he had endured during the past six years.
It is still difficult to understand the lives of women in history without an appropriate sense of context. Johannes Kepler and his mother lived through one of the most epic tragedies in the age of the witch-craze, yet they kept their spirit. It is high time to re-evaluate the way in which they have both been portrayed.”
- The Astronomer And The Witch is published by Oxford University Press.
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Three places to find out about witches in
The John Rylands Library, Manchester
Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World reveals how magic, diabolical witchcraft and ghostly encounters inspired fear and curiosity on an unprecedented scale between the 15th and 18th centuries. The exhibition illuminates the roots of our obsession with supernatural power and explores a world where the Devil was understood as a real and present danger in daily life. Until August 21 2016.
See the Grade I-listed building where the Lancashire Witches were convicted and condemned to die. Experience the dungeons and imagine what it was like to have been imprisoned there.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Ayr
Alloway Auld Kirk is the burial place for the poet's father and the setting for Tam o' Shanter's brush with the "hellish legion" of witches in Burns' epic poem.