April 16th, 2016


A Small Town in Germany

Book Review: The Astronomer and the Witch, by Ulinka Rublack
It's always a bonus to find a book on my wish list in the work book sale, and when I spotted this copy of the tale of Katharina Kepler's trial for witchcraft and the defence conducted by her son Johannes Kepler, I snapped it up. Coincidentally it was a good partner for my recent trip to the John Dee exhibition.

I'll admit the book wasn't quite what I expected, but then again, I didn't have an especially detailed view of my expectations anyway. There's more background on the period and the society of late sixteenth / early seventeenth century Germany and less on the specific story of the Kepler family than I had perhaps expected. It seems quite clear that the author's position is that Katharina was nothing more than a slightly misanthropic and absent-minded old woman, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, such that superstitious and feuding townspeople would denounce one another and the new town governor in Leonberg felt obliged (or took the opportunity) to pursue a case. Unlike the tale of Galileo, for example, this one seems much more a case of cock-up than conspiracy; perhaps if Johannes Kepler had been resident in the town at the time, the case would have been dropped quickly; but as he was employed elsewhere, the case dragged on for five years. On the other hand, Kepler's travel was based on his ability and authority as an astronomer, and also allowed him to develop his sharp skills in advocacy that he used to dismiss the case. Unfortunately there isn't much of a happy ending, as Katharina Kepler died aged 75, shortly after the case was closed.

The book concludes with a discussion of Kepler's essay Somnium, which concerns a young student of astronomy and his mother, a witch. It was also written by Kepler to support the Copernican theory of the Solar System. Was this piece the source of the allegations, or known of and used to corroborate them? It certainly is an odd coincidence.

The book is well structured and certainly gives insight into the customs of the period as well as this case in particular. There are some lovely woodcut prints distributed among the illustrations and at the endpieces.