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Kepler's Witch

Kepler's Witch
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Set against the backdrop of the witchcraft trial of his mother, this lively biography of Johannes Kepler – 'the Protestant Galileo' and 16th century mathematician and astronomer – reveals the surprisingly spiritual nature of the quest of early modern science.

In the style of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, Connor's book brings to life the tidal forces of Reformation, Counter–Reformation, and social upheaval. Johannes Kepler, who discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion, was persecuted for his support of the Copernican system. After a neighbour accused his mother of witchcraft, Kepler quit his post as the Imperial mathematician to defend her.

James Connor tells Kepler's story as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey into the modern world through war and disease and terrible injustice, a journey reflected in the evolution of Kepler's geometrical model of the cosmos into a musical model, harmony into greater harmony. The leitmotif of the witch trial adds a third dimension to Kepler's biography by setting his personal life within his own times. The acts of this trial, including Kepler's letters and the accounts of the witnesses, although published in their original German dialects, had never before been translated into English. Echoing some of Dava Sobel's work for Galileo's Daughter, Connor has translated the witch trial documents into English. With a great respect for the history of these times and the life of this man, Connor's accessible story illuminates the life of Kepler, the man of science, but also Kepler, a man of uncommon faith and vision.

HarperCollins; October 2009
416 pages; ISBN 9780061737428
Download in secure EPUB
Excerpt

Chapter One


With Unspeakable Sadness

Where Kepler's mother, Katharina, is accused of

witchcraft by a former friend, which the gossip of

the townspeople whips into a fury against her.

On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner

showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles,

the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming,

praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei,

one of the greatest astronomers of the age -- the emperor's mathematician,

the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed

the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his

advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against

him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of

witchcraft, he could not stop them. Still, he never gave up trying, and in

that he was a good deal like his mother.

It was five years into the trial, and the difficult old woman would not

bend -- she admitted nothing. Not surprising, for if truth be told, Katharina

Kepler was a stubborn, cranky, hickory stick of a woman who suffered

from insomnia, had an excess of curiosity, and simply couldn't keep her nose out of other people's business. She was known to be zänkisch -- quarrelsome

-- and nearly everyone said she had a wicked tongue. Perhaps that

was why her old friends and neighbors were so willing to accuse her of

witchcraft, why five years before they had forced her at sword point to perform

an illegal magical ritual just to gather evidence that she was indeed a

witch, and why they eventually handed her over to the magistrate for trial.

The ordeal consisted of two years of accusations and five years of court

action, from 1613, when the accusations of handing out poison potions

were first made, to 1620, when they convicted Katharina and sentenced

her to the territio verbalis, the terrorization by word, despite all Johannes

could do. There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events

around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent

changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory

(the duke's council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church

authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger

against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation,

like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since

the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into

Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the

many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had

begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. Copernicus,

an obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the

Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the

universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving

around the sun. Fear ruled Europe -- fear of difference, fear of change.

And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a

famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran,

nearly paid with her life.

Like his mother, Johannes was willing to fight. He had taken a hand in

her defense, writing much of the brief himself. He was not present at the

sentencing, though, for he would not have been permitted to accompany

her to the territio. But only a few days before, Kepler had petitioned the

Vogt, the magistrate, of Güglingen, the town where the trial had taken place, to get on with it, so when it was over old Katharina could finally

have some peace.

Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of

Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession,

and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing

to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to

repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn't. He showed her

each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body --

the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for

branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the

garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured

her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not

survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.

Meanwhile Johannes, almost insane with rage and fear, waited in town

for the ordeal to be over. Kepler was a slight man with a jaunty goatee

and a dark suit with a starched ruff collar; he was slightly stooped from

bending over his calculations and he squinted from bad eyesight, a parting

shot from a childhood bout with smallpox. His hands were gnarled and

ugly, again a result of the pox. Perhaps he paced as he waited for news,

shook his fists at the empty room. Essentially a peaceful man, he was

given to rages when he knew an injustice was being done. After all, these

were his neighbors, his childhood friends, not strangers, who had forced

this trial. The accusation, the trial, the conviction, and the sentence were

all the work of hateful people, people who had wanted some petty

vengeance, people who had seen their chance to get their hands on his

mother's small estate. It was the work of a fraudulent magistrate, a good

friend of the accusers, and of a judicial system gone mad.

Being imperial mathematician meant that the courts in Leonberg couldn't

touch him, but they could do as they liked with his mother. Imperial protections

went only so far. In the end, no mere scientist could expect that

much security. Thirteen years later, the other great astronomer, Galileo,

would face charges of heresy before the Inquisition in Rome ...