November 2015 Book of the Month: Somnium (‘The Dream’) by Johannes Kepler (1634)

‘How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?’ 

Somnium is the first treatise on lunar astronomy and is widely considered to be the first work of science fiction. It was written in Latin over a 37 year period, and began as a student dissertation defending the Copernican model of the solar system.

The title page of Somnium: Fellows Library L.4.17.Gall, Jesus College, Oxford

The title page of Somnium: Fellows’ Library L.4.17 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Kepler imagines practicing astronomy on the moon to demonstrate that the Earth moves around the sun, later adding a dream framework to distance himself from that controversial claim. A mixture of fantasy and scientific argument, the narrative recounts the space travel of an astronomer and his mother, Fiolxhilde, a sorceress.  A manuscript copy circulated in 1611, and was taken to be autobiographical: Kepler’s mother, Katherine, was conflated with Fiolxhilde, and was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1615. She was acquitted five years later.

Kepler died before Somnium’s publication, to which he had added 223 footnotes describing the scientific and allegorical elements of the text.  These form the largest part of the text, and were intended to refocus attention on the narrative’s scientific speculations.

The price paid for the book and Lord Herbert's signature

The price paid for the book and Lord Herbert’s monogram: Fellows’ Library L.4.17 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The college’s vellum-bound edition bears the initials of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, an important benefactor to the library, and records how much he paid for it: 3 shillings and 4 pence—or around 17 pence today.

Anna Thomas (Graduate Library Trainee 2012-13)

Sources and further reading:

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