Monday, June 9, 2014

Johannes Kepler's mother was suspected of Witchcraft because she was a healer

Katharina Kepler, mother of the the famous astronomer/astrologer, was an ill-tempered woman who was widely, and quite possibly deservedly disliked by those who knew her. So when one discovers that in 1615 she was denounced by her neighbors as a Witch, and that they specifically accused her of trying to poison them, and that these accusations were deemed serious enough to warrant formal charges of Witchcraft and a subsequent trial that would drag on for years, one might be tempted to conclude that this is a straightforward example of what certain modern scholars would like us to believe is the typical scenario for Witchcraft accusations during the Burning Times. Read on to see how this case might indeed by typical, but not in the sense that these scholar intend.

You see, certain scholars have, over the last three decades or so, attempted to rewrite history by systematically promulgating a completely false image of the victims of the Witch persecution that gripped Europe during the 15th - 18th centuries. According to this scholarly clique, the victims of the Witch-hunts were targeted only because they were genuinely believed to be malevolent practitioners of harmful magic. Even more specifically, those who were put on trial as Witches were most definitely not, according to this revisionist theory, practitioners of divination, healing and other forms of beneficial magic.

In the specific case of Katharina Kepler we are able to clearly see just how wrong-headed this conflation of Witchcraft with malefic magic really is. For the historical record tells us plainly that Katharina Kepler was a practitioner of magical healing. She was indeed, as her son Johannes himself freely admitted, a sharp-tongued, stubborn, and all around difficult person. But the fact is that far from shunning her, her neighbors sought her out for her cures, which involved herbal potions and magical incantations.

Viewed in light of Katharina Kepler's indisputable reputation as a magical healer, the charges against her constitute, at worst, an accusation of magical malpractice: either her cures did not work, or, worse yet, actually made the patients who took them worse off than they were before.  To be sure, whether Katharina Kepler's potions and incantations did anything at all or not, and if so, whether that was for the better or not, is impossible for us to ascertain now, over four centuries later. Systematically proving or disproving the efficacy of any purported treatment for any illness is a non-trivial process requiring double-blind studies, statistical analysis, and so forth.

However, the "magical malpractice" scenario is only one possible explanation for how a healer such as Kepler could find herself accused of Witchcraft. Another, and arguably more parsimonious, explanation is simply that Katharina Kepler was suspected of being a Witch precisely because of her reputation as a magical healer. Either way, though, there is no doubt that here we have yet another case of a magical healer who fell prey to the Witch-hunters, as was the case with Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson in Scotland in 1590-1 (as discussed in the previous post).

Fortunately, in this particular case the story has a happy ending. Katharina Kepler was eventually cleared of all charges. Her exoneration was due in large part to the energetic intervention of her son, the famous scientist and Pythagorean philosopher. But Katharina herself also deserves a significant amount of the credit. Thanks to her indomitable spirit, the Witch-hunters were never able to induce her to "confess" during years of interrogation (which did not include physical torture, but did include threats of torture up to and including being "shown the instruments").

Further reading on the case of Katharina Kepler:
  • Kepler's Witch, James A. Connor, Harper Collins, 2005
  • Kepler, Max Caspar, 1948
  • Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia, By William E. Burns, 2003 (link)
  • Der Hexenprozeß gegen Katharina Kepler, Berthold Sutter, 1979
  • Historical Trials, A Selection, Sir John MacDonnel, 1931 (link)