Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother

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Overview

Set against the backdrop of the witchcraft trial of his mother, this lively biography of Johannes Kepler – 'the Protestant Galileo' and 16th century mathematician and astronomer – reveals the surprisingly spiritual nature of the quest of early modern science.

In the style of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, Connor's book brings to life the tidal forces of Reformation, Counter–Reformation, and social upheaval. Johannes Kepler, who discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion, was persecuted for his support of the Copernican system. After a neighbour accused his mother of witchcraft, Kepler quit his post as the Imperial mathematician to defend her.

James Connor tells Kepler's story as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey into the modern world through war and disease and terrible injustice, a journey reflected in the evolution of Kepler's geometrical model of the cosmos into a musical model, harmony into greater harmony. The leitmotif of the witch trial adds a third dimension to Kepler's biography by setting his personal life within his own times. The acts of this trial, including Kepler's letters and the accounts of the witnesses, although published in their original German dialects, had never before been translated into English. Echoing some of Dava Sobel's work for Galileo's Daughter, Connor has translated the witch trial documents into English. With a great respect for the history of these times and the life of this man, Connor's accessible story illuminates the life of Kepler, the man of science, but also Kepler, a man of uncommon faith and vision.

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Editorial Reviews

John Shelby Spong
“A fascinating book, analyzing a pivotal time in western intellectual history.”
John Polkinghorne
“A detailed and fascinating account of the life and times of one of the great founding figures of modern science.”
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
“Connor has illuminated the life - and thus also the work - of one of history’s greatest star-gazers.”
Kenneth Silverman
“Connor’s skillful narrative brings to life an extraordinary man who wanted to know the mind of God.”
Eve LaPlante
“James Connor narrates the compelling human drama behind significant scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century.”
Booklist - Starred Review
“Kepler has received less than his due from rationally-minded scholars. This luminous biography will help remedy that injustice.”
Los Angeles Times
“Fun to read...”
National Catholic Reporter
“Connor delves into Kepler’s life in such a way that the scientist becomes a person of flesh and bone.”
Christian Century
“No other Keplerian biography fleshes out so fully the background against which the astronomer worked.”
Tucson Citizen
“A compelling story of scientific discovery. . . crisply written, meticulously researched and highly recommended.”
- Starred Review - Booklist
"Kepler has received less than his due from rationally-minded scholars. This luminous biography will help remedy that injustice."
Publishers Weekly
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a towering figure in early modern science, a contemporary of Tycho Brahe and Galileo who discovered the fundamental laws governing the motion of the planets. Connor goes further, offering a remarkably human portrait of Kepler, grounded in the day-to-day life of a mathematician and astronomer simply trying to make a living and navigate the turbulent politics of Counter-Reformation Europe while staying true to his own ideals. This is not the Kepler one might know from textbooks Connor's Kepler is a man driven by his deep Lutheran faith, yet ultimately excommunicated for his desire to reach out to Catholics and Calvinists; a man who seems less concerned with greatness than truth and a little bit of peace and happiness. As Connor writes in his preface, the book is as much a piece of literary nonfiction about the "kitchen details" of life in the early 17th century as it is a biography of a great astronomer. As the engaging narrative ranges from life amid religious unrest in Prague to the "trumped-up" witchcraft charges against Kepler's mother, one finds oneself lost in a world haunted by shadows and fears, yet which holds the promise of a new era of reason and enlightenment. This portrait poses a striking contrast to that in Heavenly Intrigue (Forecasts, March 13), which dubiously purports that Kepler was a virtual psychopath who killed Brahe to obtain his secret data. Maps. Agent, Giles Anderson. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Johannes Kepler confirmed the Copernican universe, laying the foundation for Newton's later laws of physics; calculated the true shape of the solar system, along with the basic laws of planetary motion; and was mathematician to Emperor Rudolph II for 11 years (1601-12). But as former Jesuit priest Connor makes clear, he was also an extremely spiritual Protestant living in a time of violent religious clashes-the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. While Kepler was sorting out his religious beliefs (a Lutheran, he sympathized with aspects of the Calvinist belief system, promoting a "live and let live" philosophy that was totally unacceptable to any of the churches of the time), his elderly mother was tried for witchcraft. Connor uses this event to show that Kepler spent as much time on his faith as on his science. More so than Dava Sobel in Galileo's Daughter-with which this book is being compared-Connor offers religious interpretation of a scientific figure. At the same time, he successfully demonstrates Kepler's ability to develop scientific theory by interpreting data based on science (primarily mathematics), not on religion, as many of his predecessors did. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Hilary D. Burton, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Lab., Livermore, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The kitchen details and cosmological consequences of Johannes Kepler's life in a turbulent time. Connor (English/Kean University) brings readers back to the events that simmered and raged around the astronomer, "a committed Lutheran staring the modern age in the eye" who became the father of celestial mechanics, formulator of the laws of planetary motion, and a pioneer in modern optics. A former Jesuit who has written about spirituality (Silent Fire, not reviewed), the author admirably sets Kepler (1571-1630) within the important context of his faith, showing how he brought it to bear on his scientific work by finding "God in the hidden mathematical harmonies of the universe in as deep a way as he found God in the revelation of the Scripture." Understanding nature informed the understanding of God, revelation and salvation were in the stars, and his belief in those hidden harmonies gave the astronomer moral courage to buck the authorities of the Lutheran church as well as the onslaughts of the Counter-Reformation. Kepler lived during a time of dark change: war, peasant revolts, and religious ferment among Christian denominations. "Mystery tolled like a bell in people's lives . . . in fear of unseen forces and anything beyond their understanding." The distinctions dividing scientists from alchemists were not so clear, and astronomy was the unruly daughter of astrology. (Kepler practiced both.) His biographer depicts him brilliantly making use of Tycho Brahe's observations and grasping the movement of the stars while suffering excommunication from his own church, the deaths of his children, and allegations of witchcraft against his mother. "Kepler did not wish to separate his science fromhis metaphysics or his metaphysics from his mysticism," writes Connor, who gives us a healthy, purposeful, and illuminating dose of each. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060750497
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/10/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,430,685
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

James A. Connor is the author of Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother and Silent Fire: Bringing the Spirituality of Silence to Everyday Life. A former Jesuit priest, Connor is professor of English at Kean University in Union, New Jersey; he has also held teaching posts at St. Louis University and Gonzaga University. He is a director of studies at the Lessing Institute in Prague. He holds degrees in geoscience, philosophy, theology, and creative writing, and a Ph.D. in literature and science. He is a prize-winning essayist published widely in such places as American Book Review, Traditional Home, Willow Springs, The Critic, The Iowa Review, and The Iowa Journal of Literary Studies.

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Read an Excerpt

Kepler's Witch

An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother
By Connor, James A.

HarperSanFrancisco

ISBN: 0060522550

Chapter One

With Unspeakable Sadness

Where Kepler's mother, Katharina, is accused of
witchcraft by a former friend, which the gossip of
the townspeople whips into a fury against her.

On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age -- the emperor's mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them. Still, he never gave up trying, and in that he was a good deal like his mother.

It was five years into the trial, and the difficult old woman would not bend -- she admitted nothing. Not surprising, for if truth be told, Katharina Kepler was a stubborn, cranky, hickory stick of a woman who suffered from insomnia, had an excess of curiosity,and simply couldn't keep her nose out of other people's business. She was known to be zänkisch -- quarrelsome-- and nearly everyone said she had a wicked tongue. Perhaps that was why her old friends and neighbors were so willing to accuse her of witchcraft, why five years before they had forced her at sword point to perform an illegal magical ritual just to gather evidence that she was indeed a witch, and why they eventually handed her over to the magistrate for trial.

The ordeal consisted of two years of accusations and five years of court action, from 1613, when the accusations of handing out poison potions were first made, to 1620, when they convicted Katharina and sentenced her to the territio verbalis, the terrorization by word, despite all Johannes could do. There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke's council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. Copernicus, an obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving around the sun. Fear ruled Europe -- fear of difference, fear of change. And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life.

Like his mother, Johannes was willing to fight. He had taken a hand in her defense, writing much of the brief himself. He was not present at the sentencing, though, for he would not have been permitted to accompany her to the territio. But only a few days before, Kepler had petitioned the Vogt, the magistrate, of Güglingen, the town where the trial had taken place, to get on with it, so when it was over old Katharina could finally have some peace.

Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn't. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body -- the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.

Meanwhile Johannes, almost insane with rage and fear, waited in town for the ordeal to be over. Kepler was a slight man with a jaunty goatee and a dark suit with a starched ruff collar; he was slightly stooped from bending over his calculations and he squinted from bad eyesight, a parting shot from a childhood bout with smallpox. His hands were gnarled and ugly, again a result of the pox. Perhaps he paced as he waited for news, shook his fists at the empty room. Essentially a peaceful man, he was given to rages when he knew an injustice was being done. After all, these were his neighbors, his childhood friends, not strangers, who had forced this trial. The accusation, the trial, the conviction, and the sentence were all the work of hateful people, people who had wanted some petty vengeance, people who had seen their chance to get their hands on his mother's small estate. It was the work of a fraudulent magistrate, a good friend of the accusers, and of a judicial system gone mad.

Being imperial mathematician meant that the courts in Leonberg couldn't touch him, but they could do as they liked with his mother. Imperial protections went only so far. In the end, no mere scientist could expect that much security. Thirteen years later, the other great astronomer, Galileo, would face charges of heresy before the Inquisition in Rome ... Continues...


Excerpted from Kepler's Witch by Connor, James A. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
With thanks
Introduction : so why Kepler? 1
Letter from Kepler to the Senate of Leonberg, January 1, 1616 7
I With unspeakable sadness 13
Testimony of Donatus Gultlinger, citizen of Leonberg, given to Luther Einhorn, magistrate of Leonberg, 1620 19
Testimony of Benedict Beutelsbacher, German schoolmaster of Leonberg, 1620 20
II Appeired a terrible comet 23
Kepler's horoscope for himself, November 1597 31
III Born with a destiny 35
From Kepler's Astronomia Nova, 1609 47
IV Taken by a forceful passion 49
Letter from Kepler to the theology faculty at Tubingen, February 28, 1594 69
V In many respects so honorable 71
Letter from Kepler to Michael Mastlin, February 10, 1597 85
VI Married under pernicious skies 87
Letter from Kepler to Michael Mastlin, June 11, 1598 101
Letter from Kepler to Herwart von Hohenberg, December 9, 1598 102
VII An Archimedean calculation of motion 107
From Kepler's eulogy on the death of Tycho Brahe, October 24, 1601 141
VIII When in heaven the flock of secret movers 145
Letters from Kepler to Johann Georg Brengger, October 4, 1607; November 30, 1607 167
IX Living creatures on the stars 169
Letter from Kepler to Tobias Scultetus, April 13, 1612 189
X Who with tender fragrance 193
Letter from Kepler to an unknown nobleman October 23, 1613 227
From Kepler's journal, 1614 229
XI To quiet the gossip 231
Letter from Luther Einhorn, magistrate of Leonberg, to the Duke of Wurttemberg, October 22, 1616 255
XII If one practices the fiend's trade 259
Letter from Kepler to Herzog Johann Friedrich von Worttemberg, November 1620 271
XIII With present maladies of body and soul 275
From Kepler's Harmonice Mundi, book V, 1619 307
XIV To examine the secrets of nature 311
Letter from Kepler to Johann Matthias Bernegger, February 15, 1621
From Kepler's journal, 1623 339
XV My duty under danger 341
Notes 365
Kepler time line 377
Source readings 381
Index 385
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First Chapter

Kepler's Witch
An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother

Chapter One

With Unspeakable Sadness

Where Kepler's mother, Katharina, is accused of
witchcraft by a former friend, which the gossip of
the townspeople whips into a fury against her.

On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age -- the emperor's mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them. Still, he never gave up trying, and in that he was a good deal like his mother.

It was five years into the trial, and the difficult old woman would not bend -- she admitted nothing. Not surprising, for if truth be told, Katharina Kepler was a stubborn, cranky, hickory stick of a woman who suffered from insomnia, had an excess of curiosity, and simply couldn't keep her nose out of other people's business. She was known to be zänkisch -- quarrelsome-- and nearly everyone said she had a wicked tongue. Perhaps that was why her old friends and neighbors were so willing to accuse her of witchcraft, why five years before they had forced her at sword point to perform an illegal magical ritual just to gather evidence that she was indeed a witch, and why they eventually handed her over to the magistrate for trial.

The ordeal consisted of two years of accusations and five years of court action, from 1613, when the accusations of handing out poison potions were first made, to 1620, when they convicted Katharina and sentenced her to the territio verbalis, the terrorization by word, despite all Johannes could do. There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke's council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. Copernicus, an obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving around the sun. Fear ruled Europe -- fear of difference, fear of change. And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life.

Like his mother, Johannes was willing to fight. He had taken a hand in her defense, writing much of the brief himself. He was not present at the sentencing, though, for he would not have been permitted to accompany her to the territio. But only a few days before, Kepler had petitioned the Vogt, the magistrate, of Güglingen, the town where the trial had taken place, to get on with it, so when it was over old Katharina could finally have some peace.

Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn't. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body -- the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.

Meanwhile Johannes, almost insane with rage and fear, waited in town for the ordeal to be over. Kepler was a slight man with a jaunty goatee and a dark suit with a starched ruff collar; he was slightly stooped from bending over his calculations and he squinted from bad eyesight, a parting shot from a childhood bout with smallpox. His hands were gnarled and ugly, again a result of the pox. Perhaps he paced as he waited for news, shook his fists at the empty room. Essentially a peaceful man, he was given to rages when he knew an injustice was being done. After all, these were his neighbors, his childhood friends, not strangers, who had forced this trial. The accusation, the trial, the conviction, and the sentence were all the work of hateful people, people who had wanted some petty vengeance, people who had seen their chance to get their hands on his mother's small estate. It was the work of a fraudulent magistrate, a good friend of the accusers, and of a judicial system gone mad.

Being imperial mathematician meant that the courts in Leonberg couldn't touch him, but they could do as they liked with his mother. Imperial protections went only so far. In the end, no mere scientist could expect that much security. Thirteen years later, the other great astronomer, Galileo, would face charges of heresy before the Inquisition in Rome ...

Kepler's Witch
An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother
. Copyright © by James Connor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2004

    Welcome ¿another Time Binder

    Add Johannes Kepler's name to the short list of courageous geniuses who vaulted humanity into the modern world. Having conducted prodigious, often on-site research, James Connor reveals how the noted astronomer and mathematician braved the violent and superstition-ridden Middle Europe of the 18th Century to become one of the courageous geniuses (like Galileo, Luther, Newton, and Copernicus) who launched the modern world. Connor's gloriously clear prose makes this book a page-turner, even for the non-specialist. Amazingly, and despite lifelong threats to his life and livelihood, and a conspiratorial witchcraft trial which effectively ended his mother's life, Kepler searched his entire life for evidence of harmony in the universe. As Connor beautifully states: '...[Kepler] was no plodding empiricist, no earthbound pragmatist. His joy was in the perfect beauty of mathematics, especially geometry, which he always expressed in mystical terms. He was a mystical rationalist, a man who found transcendence by embracing reason rather than by abandoning it.' Connor's fascinating glimpse into Kepler's world should help us see how transcending commonplace thought can save the world rather than destroy it. By understanding Kepler's world, we hopefully may undertand our own.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2004

    Interesting topic but repetitive and chaotic writer

    The topic is excellent and very interesting from a human, spiritual as well as historical point of view. However, Connor¿s writing is so repetitive, slow and chaotic. He repeats the same ideas and facts over and over again, which makes the reading boring and annoying. In addition, he presented the story in such a chaotic way. So there is no time continuity or subject continuity. Suddenly the reader jumps from subject to completely different and uncorrelated one. Also, historical events are presented in a chaotic way. Keppler would be mad to see so much chaos in his story! But what annoyed me the most was the repetitions of facts and ideas.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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