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 ...