He fought for his mother

There are not many books about the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler in which he only plays a supporting role but this is the case in Ulinka Rublack’s The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother[1]. In fact in Rublack’s excellent book even Kepler’s mother, Katherina, the nominal subject of the book only really takes a supporting role; the lead role being taken by the context within which the whole tragic story unfolds and it is exactly this that makes this book so excellent.


Regular readers of this blog will know that I champion the claims of Johannes Kepler to being the most significant natural philosopher of the Early Modern Period against the rival claims of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton et al. So I am naturally interested in any new books that appear with Kepler as their subject. Having looked closely at one of the strangest events in Kepler’s unbelievably bizarre life, the arrest and trial of his mother, Katherina, on a charge of witchcraft – and having blogged about it twice – my interest was particularly piqued by an announcement of a new book on this topic. A decent, well-researched book in English devoted exclusively to the subject would be a very positive addition to the Kepler literature. Rublack’s book is just the bill.

Nearly all accounts of Katherina Kepler’s ordeal are merely chapters or sections in more general books about Kepler’s life and work and mostly deal chronologically with the original accusations of witchcraft, counter accusations, the attempted violent intimidation of Katherina, the frustrated strivings to bring charges against her tormentors, her arrest and finally the trial with its famous defence by Johannes. Except for thumbnail sketches of those involved very little attempt is ever made to place the occurrences into a wider or more general context and this is, as already said above, exactly the strength of Rublack’s book.

Rublack in having devoted an entire book to the whole affair draws back from the accusations, charges, counter charges and the trial itself to flesh out the story with the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances in which the whole sorry story took place. In doing so Rublack has created minor masterpiece of social history. Her research has obviously been deep and thorough and she displays a fine eye for detail, whilst maintaining a stirring narrative style that pulls the reader along at a steady pace.

One point in particular intrigued me having read all the prepublication advertising for the book, including several illuminating interviews on the subject with the author, as well as short essays by her. Rublack takes what might be seen as a strong feminist stand against the previous, exclusively male, characterisations of Katherina Kepler, all of which painted her as a mean spirited, crabby, old hag, who was, so to speak, largely to blame for the situation in which she found herself. Having over the years read almost all of these accounts I was curious how Rublack would justify her rejection of these portrayals of Katherina, which I knew were based on Kepler’s own accounts of his mother. Rublack does not disappoint. She points out quite correctly that Kepler’s description of his mother was written when he was still very young and is part of an almost psychopathic put down of himself and all those related or connected to him and calls rather his own mental state into question. Interestingly we have virtually no other accounts of Katherina from Johannes’ pen and to judge her purely on this one piece of strange juvenilia is probably, as Rublack makes very clear, a bridge too far. Piecing together all of the, admittedly scant, evidence Rublack paints a much more sympathetic picture of Katherina, a hard working, illiterate, sixteenth/seventeenth-century peasant woman, who had never had it easy in life but still managed to raise her children well and give them chances that she never had.

This book is not perfect, as Rublack relies in her accounts of Johannes on older standard biographies, whilst apparently not consulting some of the more recent scholarly studies of his life and work, and thus repeats several false claims concerning him. However I’m prepared to cut her some slack on this as none of the errors that she (unknowingly?) repeats have any direct bearing on the story of Katherina that she tells so skilfully.

The book is beautifully presented by the OUP. Printed in a pleasant, easy on the eyes typeface and charmingly illustrated with a large number of black and white pictures. The text is excellently annotated, but as always I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes, and there is an adequate index. I personally would have liked a separate bibliography but this might have been sacrificed on cost grounds, the hardback being available at a very civilised price for a serious academic volume. Although having called it that I should point out that the book is very accessible and readable for the non-expert or general reader.

I heartily recommend this book to anybody interested in seventeenth-century history, Johannes Kepler, the history of witchcraft or who just likes reading good informative, entertaining books, if one is allowed to call a book about the sufferings of an innocent woman entertaining. Put simply, it’s an excellent read that deserves to, and probably will, become the standard English text on the subject.

[1] Ulinka Rublack, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother. OUP, 2015





Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

11 responses to “He fought for his mother

  1. laura

    This is a great book! Rublack’s participation on the recent BBC In Our Time podcast on Kepler was great too (as were the other guests.)

  2. “but as always I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes”

    Indeed. This is one of my standard gripes. With eBooks, endnotes could be slightly better with working links, but often there are no links or those there are don’t work properly, making endnotes in an eBook much worse than footnotes.

    Endnotes are fine if they are essentially references, but anything which is a further explanation of something in the text should be a footnote.

  3. jrkrideau

    As the President and Founder of the Society for the Abolition of Footnotes and Endnotes (S.A.F.E) I’d prefer to see them both banned and a simple (Author, Date) entry used in the text for most of footnotes and endnotes.

    But I’m from psychology and the psychology Inquisition (worse than the Spanish one) descend on one for using footnotes.

    However, footnotes are the lesser of the two evils.

    • “Author, date” citations are really endnotes in disguise because you need the reference list to interpret them. They also don’t have room for explanations along the lines of “X says this, relying on Y, but I don’t think that is a good argument because …” or for quoting the original language and they don’t allow quick evaluation “is this a primary source, a monograph, an article, …” Then there are all the works which are not tied to a single clear year. They might work in easy subjects like the natural sciences, but don’t work well in difficult ones like the historical sciences where we really have to do hard thinking 😉 (Tongue in cheek)

      • The advantage of author/date citations is that it is clear in the text what they are. One can look them up if necessary. Also, if the readership is familiar with the literature, they might recognize the citation without having to look at the reference. Some argue that using numbered references is better style, and it might be as far as reading the text is concerned, at least if they are used only for references. (Additional text should always> be in footnotes, at least if it is too clunky to fit into the main text.) However, one then has the question whether to list the references by number or alphabetically. The former allows one to quickly find the reference from the citation, but it is not easy to find whether a certain reference was cited. The latter is the reverse.

        On balance: author/year citations in the text, alphabetical reference list, additional text (which, of course, can also contain references) in footnotes. I also have a slight preference for footnote symbols over numbers.

  4. Sir,
    Congratulation to your amazing art gallery of The Renaissance Mathematicus.
    I’m missing only a presentation of the mathematicus Jost Bürgi, most probably one of the most important at this period in time. Kepler worked closely together with Bürgi and was fundamentally depending on Bürgi inventions in instrumentation and in mathematics. Those are the latest news as described in the 3rd edition of “Jost Bürgi, Kepler und der Kaiser”.
    Conclusion for Jost Bürgi (1552-1632) by Dr. Denis Roegel:
    “Bürgi developed a very ingenious collection of algorithms and obviously
    had a very deep sense of numbers. The use of differences, not for checking
    tabular values, but in order to compute new ones, is a very modern approach. It anticipates by 200 years (!) the work of Prony [13], and even Babbage (!).and this is quite meritory and should deserve our admiration.”

    Click to access roegel2016buergi-sine1minute.pdf

    Please have a look also at
    describing the discovering of Bürgis Artificium by Folkerts, Launert an Thom.
    To get an impression of the 3rd edition of my Bürgi biography, Upon your request I would be able of joining for you personally a low resolution pdf. This edition includes already the new discoveries.
    It is time to open up this hidden historical Bürgi page.
    Fritz Staudacher, author of “Jost Bürgi, Kepler und der Kaiser”, Widnau (Switzerland), eMail: staud1@bluewin.ch
    WordPress.com / Gravatar.com credentials can be used.

  5. jrkrideau

    I can live with these approaches to footnotes/endnotes in a primitive discipline like History (Sticks out tongue).

    The worst of the review is that I probably am going to have to track down a copy of the book. It sounds very interesting.

    Thony’s comment “to flesh out the story with the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances in which the whole sorry story took place” makes it very tempting indeed.

  6. jrkrideau

    # Phillip Helbig
    David Wootton’s book “The invention of science” uses Roman numerals for footnotes and numbers for bibliographic (endnote) entries. Not a bad idea but still one can find half a dozen references in an endnote.

    Clearly signs that History is advancing to the 20C but still….

  7. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #22 | Whewell's Ghost

  8. Philip, when I am reading I commonly use footnotes to assess whether the authors have a reasonable kind and variety of evidence (primary sources? journal articles?) ie. I am giving the strucure of their argument a quick glance without taking the time to look more closely. This is especially important outside of my specialty, where I don’t know works by date and author! Its hard to do that with Author Year: Page because “Smith 1992: 123” could be a transcription of a document, or a translation, or a book by someone who has never read primary sources and is just summarizing the work of others.

    That said, I decided to use author year: page for my doctoral dissertation. I won’t give in for the article with five or six languages in the footnotes though!

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