Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Katharina Kepler Was Not a Hideous Old Witch

Katharina Guldenmann Kepler (died 13 April 1622)


From the beginning, my purpose in this blog has been to focus on writing women's history--many of the women I've included have been written out of history, but many of the women have been famous, some of them infamous. Regardless, of whether their acts have been noble or ignoble, I've enjoyed writing the stories of all of these women.

Katharina Kepler,
a statue erected in 1938 in Eltingen, Germany,
her birthplace
But sometimes, women's stories are told to less-than-enjoyable ends, and that has been the case for Katharina Kepler, the mother of the famed mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler. In 1615, the sixty-eight-year-old Katharina Kepler was one of fifteen women in Leonberg (Germany) accused of witchcraft.

The charges against Katharina Kepler were brought by her neighbors--one woman believed she was being poisoned by Katharina, a girl said she had been hit by the old woman and was eventually unable to move, a man alleged she had paralyzed him, others claimed she killed their livestock and turned herself into a cat. 

Kepler was just one of the women tried during the Württemburg Witch Trials--eight of the fifteen women were convicted and executed. Kepler's case dragged on for six years. During the last fourteen months, she was threatened with torture and kept chained to the floor of her prison cell.

In 1620, Katharina's astronomer-son, Johannes, left his post as imperial mathematician and astrologer and went to Württemburg to defend his mother. While acknowledging Katharina's "restlessness" and her undoubted ability to "disturb" her neighbors, and fully aware of how the charges against his mother threatened his own life as well as his reputation, Kepler prepared and undertook a public defense of her.

For her part, and despite everything, Katharina Kepler refused to confess. Brought before the tribunal and threatened with torture, she replied, " Do with me what you want. Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit." 

She was finally freed in the fall of 1621, dying just six months later. 

Until recently, those who told her story made it seem as if Katharina Kepler deserved the horrific suffering she endured--she was, of course, headstrong, sharp-tongued, and disappointed in her marriage. She was clearly a bad wife. Her husband eventually abandoned her--but, of course, that was only because she "drove him" (and the rest of her family) "away" with her horrible behavior. She was, of course, a terrible mother. She was also illiterate, like most women of her social class, but for many historians and critics this is just one more of Kepler's unforgivable fault. Of course. 

Her aunt had been burned at the stake as a witch, so Katharina should have known better than to "concoct" potions and sell them to her neighbors. Of course. And, accused of witchcraft, she should never have hired a lawyer to defend her and to accuse her neighbor of slander.

She was a terrible woman, and if she was accused of witchcraft, it was obviously all her own fault.

As for Johannes Kepler? He outlived his mother by only eight years, dying in 1630. His "early" death (he was fifty-eight) was obviously the result of all the stresses and strains of putting up with his mother. Of course.

In his 1933 Makers of Astronomy, Hector Macpherson described Katharina Kepler as an "ill-tempered virago." She alienated her family with her "harsh tongue." In his 1990 The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, Arthur Koestler regarded Katharina as a "hideous little old woman" with an "evil tongue" and a "suspect background." 

Although focusing on Johannes Kepler's defense of his mother in Kepler's Witch An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother (2004), James A. Connor isn't very sympathetic to Kepler's mother. Her antics distracted her son from his important work. And, anyway, she was probably responsible for causing the illnesses and ailments her accusers suffered: "Who knows what kinds of bacteria were growing in" her various vials and bowls, Connor asks.

And if non-fiction accounts have been unforgiving, a fictional version of Katharina Kepler isn't much better.  In John Banville’s historical novel Kepler, she is a disgusting old woman whose kitchen smells like cat piss and whose garden is filled with dead rats. Her son is embarrassed and ashamed of his mother, who is most likely guilty of being a witch. 

But finally there is something of a corrective. Ulinka Rublack's The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for his Mother (2015) makes use of the extensive surviving trial records, preserved in the Württemberg state archives, documenting the case of Katharina Kepler, and focuses in a nuanced and thoughtful way on Katharina and her experience. 

Rublack argues that both non-fiction and fiction have been "clearly wrong" in their portrayals of Katharina Kepler. "When you go through everything," Rublack writes--"everything" here meaning documentary evidence, not misogynist assumptions--"there is nothing which suggests she was someone who was witchlike."

As Rublack notes, "Local records for the small town in which Katharina Kepler lived are abundant. There is no evidence that she was brought up by an aunt who was burnt for witchcraft--this was one of the charges which her enemies invented. There is no evidence either that she made a living from healing--she simply mixed herbal drinks for herself and sometimes offered her help to others, like anyone else."

Whether or not she was cranky, stroppy, disagreeable, or difficult, Katharina Kepler was a rare woman: she survived a charge of witchcraft during the dangerous, "burning times" of seventeenth-century Germany. It's too bad that seems to drive so many writers--male writers?--nuts.

Memorial stone for Katharina Kepler

For Rublack's essay, "The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight to Save His Mother from Execution" (a nice introduction, if you're not interested in her book), published by History Extra, click here.