cover image The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother

The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother

Ulinka Rublack. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-873677-6

In this luminous study, Rublack (Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe), professor of early modern European history the University of Cambridge, shows that Johannes Kepler (1571–1630)—revered astronomer, defender of Copernicus, and a beacon of the early scientific revolution—was also a man of his time. She details the events of Kepler’s life using copious regional records as well as his collected works. The focus of the book is the 1615 trial for witchcraft of Kepler’s mother, Katharina, which Rublack could have spun as a matter of science vs. superstition, but instead she gives readers a nuanced look at a world in which most people, including Kepler, believed that witches existed. Local citizens of the Duchy of Württemberg, in the Holy Roman Empire, carefully analyzed the evidence at Katharina’s trial, and Kepler and his siblings went to her defense, but family relations became strained as the trial dragged on. Katharina’s adult children were torn between love for their irascible mother and fear for their own impoverishment and loss of status. Rublack superbly conveys the tension among the Keplers as well as the personalities of the accusers and officials, who were not single-handedly determined to convict a witch. Readers will discover the complexities of early 17th-century German society through figures whose motivations remain familiar. (Dec.)