A Landmark Witch Trial

In 1615 Katharina, mother of the great scientist Johannes Kepler, was accused of witchcraft. Ulinka Rublack asks what her landmark trial tells us about early-modern attitudes towards science, nature and the family.

Johannes Kepler's prayer book and his wife's hairpin on a manuscript of his work.

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is one of the most important figures of the scientific revolution. He defined the three laws of planetary motion and discovered that planets move in ellipses. One of the least known facts about him is that his mother was accused of witchcraft. 

December 29th, 1615 found Kepler, who had recently turned 44, with his family in the Upper-Austrian town of Linz. A messenger knocked on the door to deliver a letter that had been sent by his sister three months earlier. The news could hardly have been worse. His aged mother had been accused of making a woman ill. She had immediately taken those calling her a witch to court for slander, yet the governor of the small town of Leonberg in the duchy of Württemberg was himself involved in the accusation and the faction against Katharina Kepler was strong. Two dozen witnesses in Leonberg would eventually testify against her, including the local schoolmaster, who had been Johannes’ childhood friend. 

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