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Monday, September 21, 2020

400 years ago, a famous astronomer and his mother’s trial for witchcraft

Johannes Kepler's mother was arrested for witchcraft on August 7, 1620. He put his work on hold, defended her in court, and secured her freedom

Written by Kabir Firaque , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 7, 2020 8:22:21 am
A statue of Katherina Kepler in her hometown of Leonberg in Germany; (inset) Johannes Kepler. (Credit: University of Cambridge) A statue of Katherina Kepler in her hometown of Leonberg in Germany; (inset) Johannes Kepler. (Credit: University of Cambridge)

Exactly 400 years ago, the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler put his work on hold, locked up his books and instruments in boxes, and took up a pressing matter — the defence of his mother, on trial for witchcraft.

Katharina Kepler was first accused of witchcraft in 1615, arrested on August 7, 1620, and eventually released in 1621, following a spirited defence by her astronomer son. On the 400th anniversary of her arrest, a look back at the events that were a reflection of the times in some ways, and unique in other ways:

The context

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe witnessed a series of trials and prosecutions for witchcraft. By most historical accounts, over 70,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and between 40,000 and 50,000 of them, mostly women, were executed, often following confessions that were forced out using torture.

At the time his mother was accused, Johannes Kepler was at the peak of his scientific career. He had already framed his three signature laws describing the orbits of planets around the Sun; he was the first scientist to correctly explain the motion of the planets. “Together these laws of celestial mechanics revolutionized astronomy,” says NASA, which has named its Kepler Mission after the astronomer. Kepler also did important work in optics, solid geometry, and logarithms.

The allegation

Katharina Kepler, who was illiterate, was 68 when she was accused of witchcraft in the German town of Leonberg in 1615. The allegation came from a former friend of hers, who suffered from chronic, excruciating pain and accused Katharina Kepler of having caused it through magical drinks, according to University of Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack. Born in Germany, Rublack analysed local records to put together The Astronomer and the Witch, her 2015 book on the trial.

“Other people in the community then likewise thought that Katharina had given them magical drinks of wine or touched them in harmful ways. It shows the damage of dealing with crisis by projecting anxieties onto old, vulnerable women as causes of harm,” Rublack told The Indian Express, by email.

Johannes Kepler was then living in the Austrian town of Linz. He saw his mother’s trial as a threat to his ambitions and set out to defend his reputation.

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The trial

From the records, Rublack found that Kepler’s tone was highly emotive. She described his defence as a rhetorical masterpiece as he dismantled the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, citing medical knowledge to explain the illnesses for which his mother was being blamed.

Above all, Rublack said, Kepler saw that the witch-craze was an attack on old women in the German lands. “The trial is so important because it shows how vulnerable anyone´s old mother was at the height of the witch-craze in Germany,” she said.

“[Kepler] had the courage to stand by his mother, and got close to her as he put together the first and only legal defence of a son for any old mother accused of witchcraft,” Rublack said. “He learnt more about her relationships and feelings as he talked to her in prison — she was chained to the floor for 14 months — and identified with her resilience. She never confessed, and he gave her strength to hold out to the end, even as she faced torture.”

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Katharina Kepler was released in 1621, six years after she had first been accused. She died a few months later.

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