By Crystal Neill
It is said that behind every successful man there is a woman, and for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, that woman was his intelligent younger sister, Sophie Brahe. This little-known woman became a successful scholar in the areas of astronomy, astrology, alchemy, botany, genealogy, and language even in a setting where her learning was discouraged. Studying her life and work can unveil what the world was like for an academic woman in the sixteenth century and how her support led Tycho Brahe to great success.
Sophie Brahe was born on August 24, 1559 in Denmark to parents Otto Brahe and Beate Bille. Her father was a nobleman, a prestigious State Councilor, and their family was very wealthy. She was the youngest of eight siblings but at first grew up without one of them. Tycho Brahe, who was thirteen years older than her, was raised by his uncle, Jorgen Brahe, who basically kidnapped him since he had no children of his own (Hoyrup). However, their father died when Sophie was eleven, and so Tycho became her father figure. She was not interested in being a noblewoman and wanted to be educated. Although Tycho did not think she was capable of learning astrology and other abstract topics, soon he said that
“she, who has an unbendable will and such great self-confidence that she will never yield to men in intellectual matters, cast herself all the more energetically into her studies and in a short time learned the basic principles of astrology… When I saw the clear signs of this, I quit opposing it and simply advised her to moderation in her ongoing studies.”
Tycho was obviously impressed by her intelligence and perseverance and began to tutor her in chemistry, mathematics, German, Latin, astronomy, alchemy, and classical literature. She enjoyed writing poetry and casting horoscopes for her friends (Gordon 68). In 1572, at the age of thirteen, she helped Tycho with observations of the supernova he would name “Nova Stella” (Hoyrup), and at the age of fourteen, she assisted Tycho in observing a lunar eclipse (Christianson 57).
However, Sophie was still a noblewoman, and so she was obliged to marry a much older, rich, powerful nobleman. In 1579, she married Otto Thott, and in 1580, she had her first and only child, Tage Thott. For the next nine years, we do not know much of Sophie’s life. She seemed to thrive when she had freedom, but under Danish law, when girls were young, they were governed by their fathers, and when they were married, they were governed by their husbands. Just as Sophie’s father’s death enabled her to be scientifically educated, the early death of her husband in 1588 enabled her to become scientifically active. She excelled at managing her late husband’s estate, Elsinore, which involved keeping up the property and also taking care of the household. Sophie went above and beyond in these areas, creating lavish knot gardens with parterres for her home (Hoyrup). Knot gardens and parterres are mathematically patterned gardens that divide plants by type and are in themselves an art form (Britannica).
Sophie even built herself a laboratory in her gardens, and Tycho called them the “finest in Europe” (Christianson 161). They were likely full of herbs and other plants that Sophie used in her alchemical studies to make medicines for her household. This was an expected part of a woman’s role, as alchemical processes were involved in recipes for remedies and gardening as well as making cosmetics and preserving food, not just trying to turn metals into gold, a process called transmutation. Various aspects of alchemy were tied to “women’s work” like cooking and washing, and alchemical recipes made many allusions to the “womb” of the alchemical flasks and compared transmutation to pregnancy. Alchemy was a back door for women into the scientific community and tied them to natural philosophy, which will be discussed later (Ray). Sophie was very successful in her studies of alchemy and even sent an elixir for combating plague to King Christian IV (Christianson 264).
During this time in her life, Sophie also spent much of her time on Tycho’s island of Hven, an incredible scientific institute. Tycho greatly respected Sophie and called her “Urania,” the muse of astronomy, because of the close, supportive relationship they had. She was his research assistant in astronomy, astrology, and alchemy, and she served as hostess for many important visitors (Gordon). Tycho had married a commoner, Kirsten Jorgensdatter, who could not serve as a hostess to noble guests. Therefore, Sophie, with her intellectual curiosity and social skills, fell naturally into the role of lady of the estate. In 1586, she was at Tycho’s side when Queen Sophie (the same age as Sophie Brahe) came to see Tycho’s scientific institute with her parents and an army of courtiers. In 1590, she helped host King James VI, the ruler of Scotland. Later that year, she also received Tycho and one of his colleagues at her own estate of Elsinore, showing off her gardens and laboratory. At this time, Tycho was redesigning his own gardens, and Sophie not only inspired him, but also gave him advice and sent him plants and one of her servants to be his gardener (Christianson). Clearly, Sophie managed not only her own estate, but played a large part in developing the reputation of Tycho’s estate on Hven.
To continue, her scientific contributions to Hven were also valuable, especially in the field of alchemy. It is important to note that both Sophie and Tycho were primarily Paracelsian alchemists, which means the main focus of their alchemy was to discover healing elixirs and unveil secrets of the universe. Tycho called the subject “terrestrial astronomy” because although he was uninterested in making gold, he believed that the workings of the cosmos could be revealed in alchemy: “as above, so below” (Gordon 67). While Tycho observed the heavens above, Sophie was at work in the alchemical labs in the basement and dining room of Tycho’s estate. Alchemy was based on the idea that all matter was different forms of one substance, the prima materia, which was strongly associated with God, and that “if this basic material could be discovered, one would, in a way, look into the divine fabric of the cosmos” (Marie Louise Von Franz, quoted in Gordon 25).
Alchemists were also natural philosophers. They believed that matter was made of three components: sulfur, mercury, and salt. Sulfur, with its yellow color and tendency to vaporize, was associated with the element fire and with the sun. Mercury, with its silver color and liquid state at room temperature, was associated with the element water and with the moon. Salt was associated with the physical body and with earth. If impure matter was separated into these three components, then the components were refined, then they were recombined in perfect balance, they would create quintessence, the substance that makes up the philosopher’s stone and the substance believed to make up the heavens. Even a morsel of the philosopher’s stone could act as a catalyst in the process of transmutation, changing a base metal into gold, or could create the Elixir of Life, changing vegetable matter into a substance that could grant immortality (Gordon). Although Tycho most likely did not believe that it would be possible to create gold or eternal life, Sophie was more open-minded.
In 1589, she met someone who shared her passion, Eric Lange, the man that would become her passion. Eric Lange was a dynamic nobleman, an addict to alchemy with the debts to prove it. He had traveled across Europe during his education and lived an adventurous life (Christianson 260). He escaped the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by fleeing through the sewers of Paris while Catholic attackers murdered over 3,000 Protestants (Britannica). His sister was married to Tycho’s brother, so this familial connection and his interest in and knowledge of science brought him to Hven, where he and Sophie fell in love (Gordon). In this year, Sophie probably wrote a famous Danish ballad about a woman who falls in love with a man in spite of all the advice given to her by family and friends. Indeed, Tycho was the only one who supported their relationship, and even trusted Eric so much that he almost made him executor of his children’s estate (Christianson). By 1590, Sophie and Eric were betrothed. Yet within a few months, Eric was placed under house arrest for failure to pay his debts. When he got out, he left Hven and roamed Europe, avoiding other creditors (Hoyrup). Thus began a spiral down into poverty. Eric was convinced that alchemy was essential for existence and that it could be useful for good. He believed that he had once multiplied a quantity of flour and wanted to prove himself and his theories to the world. Alchemy is expensive, though, and soon even the estate he inherited and sold off was not enough to pay his debts (Gordon). He returned to Hven in 1591 but had to flee the country through Germany with Tycho’s help in 1592. In 1594, Sophie’s feelings of desperation and longing inspired Tycho to write a poem, Urania Titani, or Urania to Titan. In this beautiful Latin poem, modeled after Ovid, Tycho wrote a letter from Urania, the muse of astronomy, which represented Sophie, to Titan, her lover, which represented Eric. The poem uses chemical and astrological imagery to portray Sophie as confident and able and to warn Eric against continuing to lie to himself and others. This poem was most likely sent to Eric, and it survives today, praised as “witty, appealing, and profoundly erudite” (Christianson 261). Yet Eric could not let go of his addiction, and so Sophie chased him around the continent, even using her money to try to pay off his debts (Gordon).
Aside from all the drama occurring with his younger sister, Tycho was having issues of his own. The new king, Christian IV, took Hven away from him, and Tycho had to relocate to Prague. He wrote to Sophie asking her to join him, but before she could respond, he died on October 21, 1601. This must have been impossibly hard for Sophie, especially since he was the only family member who continued to support her in her work (Gordon). Yet Sophie kept going, and in March of 1602, after a twelve-year engagement, Sophie and Eric finally met in the small German town of Eckernforde and were married (Hoyrup). It is possible that Eric, at twenty years older than Sophie, was in many ways a substitute for Tycho, the most important male figure in her life. Yet their marriage was plagued by the same problems their betrothal had: debt, fleeing creditors, and extreme poverty. It got to the point where even the jewelry and clothing her sisters gave her out of pity was pawned off for money to pay creditors. Even though they could barely feed themselves, “both Eric and Sophie became so identified with the work that they lost sight of the need to stay grounded in daily life. As has been the story for many alchemists, they spiraled into poverty and never realized their dream” (Gordon 70).
Luckily for Sophie, Eric died in 1613. At this point, she returned to Elsinore, now her son Tage’s estate. Tage had become a State Councilor and was very successful and rich, so he had no problem supporting his mother (Hoyrup). From this time until her death in 1643, Sophie threw herself into intellectual pursuits: teaching one of her servants the healing arts, keeping up the gardens, writing funny and often bitter letters to relatives, and doing extensive genealogical research (Gordon). Even though in many ways she despised the nobility, she ended up publishing 900 pages of heavily researched genealogies. These works, along with many of her letters and her beautiful house, are still around today (Hoyrup).
Today Sophie Brahe is remembered as one of the first female researchers and writers in Scandinavia. She was a huge support for Tycho in his research and in ensuring that his royal visitors would continue to give him patronage. She made contributions in the fields of astronomy, astrology, botany, genealogy, and alchemy. Despite accepted gender roles and a whirlwind romance that plunged her life into poverty for a long period of time, she was persevering and never stopped learning, backing one of the greatest astronomers of that time and standing as an example of what stubborn, intelligent women can do if they are given access to education.
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