Kepler’s Witch Trial

In her essay the author takes a look at the entanglements of fundamental European institutions like church, science and legal system with the notion of magic in the Early Modern Age. Through a concrete witch trial story she analyses forms of systematization and classification in the realm of scientific demonology as well as Western practices of segregation. With a brief outlook on Édouard Glissant’s writing about opacity she proposes a more critical view on the production of European history and its narrations of freedom or rationality.

Johanna Ziemer — Mrz 17, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kepler’s Witch Trial

As a child, Kepler witnessed the Great Comet of 1577, which attracted the attention of astronomers across Europe. In addition to the comet, five zodiac symbols appear in the sky: Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Sagittarius. Below the comet's tail are the crescent moon and Saturn, depicted as a star with the astronomical symbol ♄. At the bottom center, a man draws the comet by the light of a lantern. Jiřrí Jakubuv Dačický, Untitled (Great Comet of 1577), woodcut, 1577 (public domain/wikicommons)

Massive transformative developments in technology and science, and the brutal suppression of non-Christian beliefs, are the two known poles of an area of conflict in which realities of the early modern era are placed from our current perspective. The births of the natural sciences and the peak of femicides in the form of »witch hunts« fall into this period.

Katharina Kepler, the mother of the well-known mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, was one of many women prosecuted at that time for being in a pact with the devil and using witchcraft. A brief analysis of this trial’s circumstances, together with a wider view on the process of segregation in European systems of thought, questions the proclaimed inambiguity of that time. This text searches for a decolonial approach to  history and European self-perception – following the mention by philosopher Isabelle Stengers that the term »animism« (or »magic« – note from the author) »can hardly be disentangled from pejorative colonialist associations [or] associations with the idea of ›stages‹.«1

Today, it’s still valid and almost undisputed to take »the« Early Modern Age as a reference period for the birth of Modern Europe. As such, it has become a projection screen, and its achievements are interpreted as pointing beyond its time and space. The Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes about the production of the Renaissance period:

The historical itinerary was political, as evidenced by the now well-known names that it evokes – Columbus, Magellan, Charles V […] and the turning moments that set its pace […] These political developments paralleled the emergence of a new symbolic order. The invention of the Americas […], the simultaneous invention of Europe, the division of the Mediterranean by an imaginary line […], the westernization of Christianity, and the invention of a Greco-novel past to Western Europe were all part of the process through which Europe became the West. What we call Renaissance, much more an invention in its own right than a rebirth, ushered in a number of philosophical questions to which politicians, theologians, artists, and soldiers provided both concrete and abstract answers. What is Beauty, What is Order? What is the State? But also and above all: What is Man?2

The hegemony of »ratio« started in the modern era in Europe and ran parallel to the idea of systematic order. It became one of the widespread ideas about this time that rational laws would ultimately replace the belief in magic and magical thinking and instead install a more relevant, universal order system. Magic has since been regarded as something foreign and other, far removed from Western culture. The very insistence on this clear separation points to a much more difficult mode of thought that has operated in Western and colonial systems of thought for centuries – that is segregation. What does this mean for the conception of our own history?

On closer examination, one can see quite quickly that the picture of the »ratio« rising in the seventeenth century that replaced the until then predominant magic, is not correct. Practices classified as magic were found in almost all areas of personal and public life. Clairvoyance or divination in jurisdiction and administration, metaphysical considerations as part of (natural) scientific discourse, and the coexistence of faith and superstition even within the churches were nothing unusual. The scientist Johannes Kepler depicts in his biography the simultaneity of many such supposed contradictions. As a mathematician, he proved the laws of the heliocentric solar system and calculated the elliptic orbits of the planets. At the same time, he wrote horoscopes with scientific claims and was convinced that the stars, like the weather, had an influence on us humans. He was a devout Protestant and yet he suspected a force emanating from the sun, the Anima motrix, which unfolded throughout the solar system and had an effect on the bodies located there. Like those of many others, the transitions in his thinking were fluid.

A completely different phenomenon in which transition blurs were the witch trials, which peaked in Kepler’s time. These can be seen as a particular example of intricacy. Here, the objectivity of the institutions science, church, and law interacted in the most absurd way with a diffuse belief in magic. How dangerous the elaborate system was, which outwardly pretended to be objective and inwardly was full of contradictions, and how difficult it was to encounter it, Kepler had to personally experience when a neighbor accused his mother of witchcraft in her hometown of Leonberg and pressed charges. From 1615–21, Katharina Kepler had to defend herself against the accusation of witchcraft in civil and criminal proceedings. A neighbor accused her of trying to poison her with a potion, and a child indicated that his arm had become stiff after Katharina had grazed it in passing. Katharina Kepler was threatened with torture and death by fire at the stake. In 1620 Johannes Kepler personally came to Württemberg and took on the defense on behalf of the official lawyer. The danger to his mother was very real. More than 50,000 people were burned between 1550 and 1650 in Europe after court sentences, or died as a result of torture or witch-trial tests during the trials.

In his defense, Kepler had sought advice from lawyers and theologians that he knew. They informed him on the current status of relevant disputes. Even if the large number of trials that took place gave the impression that the trials were uncontroversial or at least would have been unquestionably enforced by the authorities, this was not the case. For years, scholars from various disciplines seriously discussed questions such as whether the general rules of procedure should be applied to witch trials, whether animal transformations could really take place and also the suitability of witch-trial tests (German: Hexenprobe), such as the ordeal of water. Rulers, too, whether Catholic or Protestant, had different opinions on it.

As a natural scientist and rational man, was Kepler suitable to defend in witch trials? Regardless of his personal stance on magical issues, at least from the perspective of the accused, he displayed many qualities that made him formally more suitable for defense than any local lawyer. He was networked with international scientific circles, familiar with critical text analysis, and trained in argumentation, which was reflected in his defense. He had applied for access to all statements which, according to the rules of procedure even then, had to be recorded in writing. He meticulously questioned the credibility of the individual witnesses and the conclusiveness of their statements.

But even this typical legal procedure was not enough to fully convince the court of his mother’s innocence. The fact that she did not have to be burned at the stake was solely due to the fact that she was ultimately granted an additional ordeal, which she passed. The 73-year-old was led to the instruments of torture and given one last chance to confess to the charges against her before the interrogation under torture was to continue. However, since she still refused, this was eventually considered proof that she was not a witch. The trials by ordeal were not actually permitted in court, but were used repeatedly. Not infrequently, the tests themselves led to death, such as the ordeal of water. During the Hexenbad the woman was tied up and fastened to a rope, which was thrown into a lake or river. If she sank, her innocence was proved. The demonologists drew this conclusion from their assumption that water, as a »pure« element, would only »accept« innocent women. The women who were in a pact with the devil would not be absorbed by the pure water and would thus float. Many women drowned during these tests because they were not pulled out in time.

»On closer examination, one can see quite quickly that the picture of the »ratio« rising in the seventeenth century that replaced the until then predominant magic, is not correct. Practices classified as magic were found in almost all areas of personal and public life.«

That of all people, the members of the secular courts had an affinity to the belief in supernatural powers was one of the prerequisites for these trials’ great effectiveness. Objective court rules and personal motives for believing in magical offenses were a dangerous, disastrous mixture. The insistence on supposed objectivity corresponded to the spirit of the times and did not stop at the realm of magic. Especially the debate about the distinction between white and black or natural and demonic magic was highly topical at that time. But there were also other lively discussions about the nature, possibilities, and legitimacy of magic in all important theory-forming areas of the time, such as theology, law, or (natural) philosophy. The natural sciences only began to emerge from other disciplines. Scholars such as Giordano Bruno or Agrippa von Nettesheim wrote important contributions and classifications that systematized and bundled knowledge and traditions about magical knowledge. In this way, they quasi-founded magic discourses and supplemented them with their own treatises. In terms of content, the focus was often formerly on metaphysical and cosmological questions, which today would be partly ascribed to the fields of physics and astronomy. Another form of theorizing was the Hexenhammer – Malleus Maleficus (»Witches’ Hammer») written by a Dominican monk. In the eyes of the author, this work was an implementation of the papal bull of 1484, which condemned witchcraft in the sense of the Inquisition. With the Hexenhammer, in the form of a scientific treatise, definitions and rules for the persecution of »witches« were written and distributed, and the book quickly became very popular. The subject struck a nerve, and even if the book was not officially recognized by the church and the courts as a theoretical basis for their work, the influence it had on its advocates at the level of opinion-forming, language use, and the encouragement of a certain basic mood was considerable. The book became the ideological basis of recognized demonologists, a subgroup of witchcraft theorists who studied the nature of black magic and often taught at universities. In general, both natural and demonic magic did not contrast with the notion of science at that time, but were often part of it.

Nevertheless there were differences. While for some, the increasingly differentiated observations of metaphysical questions and investigations of invisible forces of nature led to ever new knowledge and the development of new disciplines and let knowledge (literally) extend to infinity, the advocates of witch hunting used systematization and order as a pretext and motive for exclusion, marginalization, and persecution.

The Inheritance:

Can we learn to endure and live the Chaos-world? How can we work against a hierarchy of knowledge that misses the multiplicity of all voices? The author Édouard Glissant, who repeatedly dealt with questions of identity, relation, and the complication of narratives, demands:

I claim for all the right to opacity that is not enclosure. It is to react in this way against so many reductions to the false clarity of universal models. It’s not necessary to »understand« (or »grasp«; French: »comprendre«) who ever, individual, community, people, to »take them with me« at the price of suffocate them, of losing them so in a numbing totality that I oversee in order to accept to live with them, to build with them, to risk with them. That the opacity, ours for the others and that of the others for us when they meet, doesn’t close at obscurantisme or apartheid, but be a feast and not terror. […] All this has the sole quality of opening the trace to other saying. It is on the joint poetics that I am calling at the moment. Our actions in the world are sterile if we do not change, as much as we can, the imaginary of the humanities that we constitute.3

Glissant permanently designs models of thinking that act like networks and are dynamic, yet offer security. They are countermodels to monolithic, closed representations of history, which may sometimes seem tempting, but whose mechanisms function through exclusion and attempts at dominance. Whereas the pain that is caused is real, the disambiguity of European history in itself is only pretended. Unveiling its own fragility could be one of the many steps towards a decolonial approach to European national narratives. And by doing so putting a necessary end to what Sylvia Wynter calls the »fallacy of supraculturalism»4 and re-open with Glissant to other saying.


Johanna Ziemer works as a dramaturge for music theater and opera performance. Her research revolves around possible formats for polyphonic representation as well as questions of de- and coloniality in her own theatrical practice.

  1. Isabelle Stengers, Den Animismus zurückgewinnen [Reclaiming Animism], in Animismus-Revisionen der Moderne, edited by I. Albers, A. Franke, p.111 : »The very name can hardly be disentangled from pejorative colonialist associations, also from associations with the idea of »stages«, a common (folk)lore shared by Sigmund Freud, James Frazer, and Edward Tylor. The mature (white) adult male, who has accepted the hard truth that he is alone in a mute, blind world, is then able to define the past as what leads toward him.«, see also: eflux Journal #36, 2012, (accessed February 05, 2021)

  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot: Silencing the Past. Power and the Production of History, 1995: p. 74.

  3. Édouard Glissant: Traité du Tout-monde, Poétique IV, 1997: p. 29: »Je réclame pour tous le droit à l’opacité, qui n’est pas le renfermement. C’est pour réagir par là contre tant de réductions à la fausse clarté de modèles universels. Il ne m’est pas nécessaire de »comprendre qui que ce soit, individu, communauté, peuple, de le „prendre avec moi“ au prix de l’étouffer, de le perdre ainsi dans une totalité assomante que je gérérais, pour accepter de vivre avec lui, de bâtir avec lui, de risquer avec lui. Que l’opacité, la nôtre s’il se trouve pour l’autre, et celle de l’autre pour nous quand cela se rencontre, ne ferme pas sur l’obscurantisme ni l’apartheid, nous soit une fête, non une terreur. Que le droit à l’opacité, par où se préserverait aux mieux le Divers et par où se renforcerait l’acceptation, veille, ô lampes! Sur nos poétiques. Tout cela sommairement conté, a pour seul qualité d’ouvrir la trace à d’autres dits. C’est aux poétiques conjointes que je fais appel en ce moment. Nos actions dans le monde sont frappées de stérilité si nous ne changeons pas, autant que nous y pouvons, l’imaginaire des humanités que nous constituons.«

  4. Sylvia Wynter, No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues, in: Forum N. H. I- Knowledge for the 21st century, Knowledge on Trial, vol. 1 no. 1, p. 42.

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