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