Kepler’s Witch

Eyebrows raised at the title of this blog? Probably at least a few. It sounds medieval, maybe a little inappropriate for a nice Christian gal like me – maybe even a little risque.

I assure you it isn’t at all. Its the title of the most recent book I finished, and lest you think it falls in the category of shady (and poorly written!) historical fiction romance, you can set your mind at ease. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kepler’s Witch is part biography, part historical account, examining the science, theology and politics of the Holy Roman Empire in late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Johannes Kepler is probably most well known for writing the book Harmonices Mundi, or Harmony of the World. This book highlights that while Harmony may be considered Kepler’s apex moment, it was by no means a hiccup in an otherwise dull life. It also takes a long, hard look at a lesser known side of Kepler – his staunch Lutheranism. Kepler’s writings were often as much theology as they were science. He admitted on a frequent basis that his only reason for pursuit of understanding the heavens was to better understand God and to bring God glory.

The book travels throughout the Holy Roman Empire, frequently encountering different factions of the Counter-Reformation. At this point in history, the ruler of a particular territory determined the approved religion of that territory – meaning every time Kepler moved, he was journeying into a new religious atmosphere. Kepler was born and raised a Lutheran, but his religious life was by no means simple. Kepler was taught, as a good Lutheran, that he should search out the scriptures for himself. Even as a young man he could be seen in a church service scouring the scriptures looking for proof of the theological statements made in the pulpit.

Turns out, Kepler didn’t agree with the Lutheran teaching on Holy Communion. In a wildly unorthodox move, he chose to side with the Calvinists – perhaps even more heretical than agreeing with the Catholics. In later life, during the heat of the Counter-Reformation, he was excommunicated from the Lutheran church on this point. Like Thomas More of England, Kepler was given ample opportunities to further his career by returning to Catholicism or recanting his disagreements with the Lutherans. He chose to do neither.

The title of the book comes from Kepler’s close involvement in a witchcraft trial. His mother, Katharina Kepler, was placed on trial for witchcraft late in her life. Like many of such trials, the charges were based on hearsay, pushed through the courts by vindictive neighbors and unethical judges. The woman, at the age of 75, was too feisty to give in or run away – she even endured a form of torture in which the executioner describes, vividly and in great detail, the myriad of cruel torture instruments at his disposal, all in an attempt to garner her confession. She would have none of it.

Kepler was married twice, and although his first marriage was an unhappy one, little is said of his second marriage. He had a number of children, although few survived to adulthood. He had friends in high places, crossing religious, socio-economic and political barriers. He was fond of a lively debate, and enjoyed friendly interchanges with a number of Jesuit priests on various theological topics.

Kepler’s scientific achievements almost fade into the background in this book. The author is far more concerned with Kepler functioning in the world of the late 16th and early 17th century, with his religious beliefs and family affairs. However, it is frequently discussed that Newton’s work might never have come to be without Kepler, who’s work on planetary motion set the foundation for a thorough understanding of gravity. Even in Newton’s own lifetime, his colleagues accused him of not giving Kepler the credit he deserved.

The book is a fascinating romp through the earliest explorations of modern astronomy, through the wicked twists and turns of the theological and political landscape of the Counter-Reformation, and through the brilliant albeit sometimes very dark life of Johannes Kepler.

I highly recommend this book as an exceptional read – it has already spurred me on to a biography of Galileo (Galileo’s Daughter) and next on the list to be either a history of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation, or maybe a good biography of John Calvin.

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2 thoughts on “Kepler’s Witch

  1. This sounds fascinating. I’m going to pick up a copy. I’ve been looking for a new read since all that sits on my nightstand is cookbooks right now …

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