Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Sophia Brahe: "Animus invictus"

Sophia Brahe (born 24 August 1559)

Although there is some difference of opinion about the date of Sophia Brahe's birth, I'm going with this one because I feel like writing about her today (her birthday is either 24 August 1559 or 22 September 1556.)*
Sophia Brahe, sister and assistant
of the renowned astronomer
Tycho Brah

Sophia's older brother, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, is one of the most well-known figures of the western European scientific revolution.

His astronomical observations and calculations were essential to Johannes Kepler, who used them to formulate his laws of planetary motion.

Less well known is Sophia Brahe, whom Tycho trained in horticulture and chemistry. She also assisted her brother in his astronomical work.

The Brahe family was a noble one, and given the family's social status, they did not expect their son--much less their daughter--to engage in the study of astronomy; nevertheless, Tycho preferred astronomy to a career in law or politics, and Sophia began assisting her brother when she was in her teens. (Tycho and Sophia Brahe's mother, Beate Brille Brahe, was the Danish queen Sophie's chief lady in waiting from 1584-92.)

As the daughter of Danish nobility, Sophia had received an excellent education, while her brother helped to expand her studies by providing his younger sister with her horticultural and chemical education.

Sophia also studied, on her own, genealogy, medicine, and, more importantly, astronomy. Although Tycho seems not to have encouraged his sister's interest in this particular field, he did not discourage it when she pursued it herself--he appreciated her dedication, describing her and her animus invictus, or "determined mind."

During time spent with her brother at his observatory Uraniborg, on the Danish island of Hven, she assisted him in his observations of planetary motion, in his recording of these observations, and in his mathematical calculations on the orbits of eclipses and comets. She was with her brother on 11 November 1572, when he discovered what he called the stella nova, or "new star," in the constellation Cassiopeia. She also assisted him with observations that led to his calculation of a lunar eclipse on 8 December 1573.

As Gabriella Bernardi notes in The Unforgotten Sisters, Sophia "might have been much more than a simple collaborator, as it is possible that she contributed to the cosmological model known as Tychonic, after the name of the Danish astronomer."

Sophia Brahe married Otto Thott in 1576. The marriage produced one child, a son, and after Thott's death in 1588, Sophia managed the estate of Eriksholm in her son's interest, not only maintaining the property but enhancing it with the creation of a remarkable garden.

While maintaining her contact with her brother at Uraniborg, she met Erik Lange, a young nobleman who was studying astronomy with Brahe. Sophia and Lange were betrothed in 1590 despite the objections of her family--Lange was not only studying with Brahe, he was spending his fortune in the pursuit of alchemy. Lange abruptly left Denmark for Germany, probably to avoid creditors, and the couple did not marry until Sophia joined him there in 1602.

Throughout the brief years of their marriage, the pair lived their lives in increasing poverty--Lange died in Prague in 1613, leaving Sophia to return to Denmark in 1616, only after "disclaiming" his debts and agreeing not to make any claim on her deceased husband's inheritance.

The period of her separation from Lange, meanwhile, had resulted in Sophia Brahe's 1594 Latin verse epistle, Urania Titani (Urania to Titan), "a burning hymn to love," curiously attributed at times to her brother. (Because, of course, women don't write.)

A memorial to Sophie Brahe,
Church of Our Lady, Aalborg,
photographed byHideko Bondesen 
In addition to this verse epistle and her correspondence (including a lengthy letter to her sister, Margarethe, written in 1602 and long recognized as a supreme example of Danish personal letters), Sophia Brahe is also known for her 900-page genealogical work recording the history of sixty families belonging to the Danish nobility. Slegte bog (The Family History Book) was published in Denmark in 1626 and still an important source of Danish history.

Sophia Brahe continued writing until her death in 1643 at the age of eighty-nine.

For Lanae Hjorstvang Isaacson's excellent essay in An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers, click here.

I also recommend John Christianson's On Tycho's Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601--it contains a fair amount of information on Sophia Brahe. 

*This is the date accepted by John Christianson. Either date fits with Tycho's horoscope prepared for his sister.