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From the Archives: Kepler’s Mother-A Scary Story for Halloween

The seventeenth century was a period of scientific revolution. Astronomers, like Galileo, worked out the motions of the planets and stars in the sky, and overturned the concept that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos.(1) Galileo, Newton and others created a new science of mechanics that applied the laws of mathematics to motion. Physicians explored the structure of the human body. The development of scientific instruments allowed students to see new worlds in a drop of water and scan the skies with a clarity not possible with the naked eye. Natural philosophers (the name used by scientists at the time) began to perform experiments in a way that could be verified by others.(2)

The seventeenth century was also the height of the European witch trials. Black magic, maleficum, was a capital crime, clearly defined by law. Between 1570 and 1680, roughly 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft in Europe and between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed. Most of the accused were women. One of the women accused was Katharina Kepler, the 68-year-old mother of German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The charges against Katharina will sound familiar to anyone who has read accounts of the witch trials.  A woman who suffered from a chronic illness accused Katharina of poisoning her. The local schoolmaster reported that the illiterate Katharina constantly pestered him to read letters from or write letters to her famous son, and that on one occasion she entered his house though the doors were locked. A local matron reported, second-hand, that a young seamstress told her that Katherina had roamed the house late at night(3)  and offered to teach her (the seamstress) witchcraft. She was accused of killing various local animals by magic and of turning herself into a cat. Katherina vehemently denied the charges. The only charges she couldn’t  deny were a) being old and b)being difficult. (4) Obviously prime witch material.

Her trial lasted six years.

In 1620, five years after Katharina’s ordeal began (!), at the height of his career, Johannes Kepler packed up his family, moved to the city where his mother was on trail, and took over her defense. He dissected the charges in a powerful, and groundbreaking, legal document. He attacked the reliability of many of the witnesses. He pointed out the fact that many of the accused acts–like entering someone’s house uninvited–could not necessarily be attributed to witchcraft. And that to do so would make any difficult old woman vulnerable to attack. (5) He discussed the differences between natural and unnatural illness in scientific detail, with the authority of one of the great scientists of his age. He pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony. It took almost a year, but he ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted.

Katharina died six months after her acquittal, no doubt worn down by her ordeal

At base, Kepler wasn’t that different than the men who tried his mother. He believed in magic. The division between magic, religion and science was not clear. Sir Isaac Newton spent as much time studying alchemy and interpreting biblical prophecies as he did on the scientific theorems for which he is famous. William Harvey, who discovered how blood circulates in the body, dissected a witch’s toad familiar, looking for the source of its supernatural power. Most witchhunters and demonologists were scholars and rationalists who believed in the importance of direct observation and were concerned with the question of what constituted reliable evidence . The investigation of witchcraft, magic and miracles was a much a part of the scientific revolution as the study of gravity and electricity.

Small comfort for cranky old ladies who liked cats and annoyed their neighbors.

(1) Or at least shoved it off balance. It takes a while for new ideas about the nature of reality to work their way through society. Consider the existence of the Flat Earth Society.
(2) It is only fair to point out that many of these breakthroughs had been anticipated by Islamic scientists during the Golden Age of Islam, most notably Alhazen, whose work laid the foundation for the scientific method.
(3) There is a reason they call them the witching hours.
(4) In her trial Johannes himself admitted that she “disturbs the whole of her town, and is the author of her own lamentable misfortune.”
(5) As indeed they were.

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2 Comments

  1. Mary Grace McGeehan on October 31, 2019 at 7:48 am

    Absolutely unbelievable. In addition to the horrifying story of Keppler’s mother’s ordeal, I was interested in your observations about the unclear division between science and magic. I was going to suggest that there’s a book in here but I see someone published one recently.

    • Pamela on November 1, 2019 at 8:12 pm

      It’s easy to forget that science has a history, too.

      Unless you hang out with history of science types.

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