Today’s post is about a gentleman who is mostly famous for two things, one of which is not having a nose. It is strange, isn’t it, what peculiar aspects of people go down as truly noteworthy for future generations, and in this particular case the loss of a nose clearly overshadows the impressive intellect and exciting life of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. As a Swede, I feel obliged to point out Brahe sounds very Swedish. In fact, had he been born a century later,he would have been Swedish. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. Lucky Danes…
Anyway: our hero of the day was born in December of 1546, one of a set of twins. Where Tycho thrived, his twin brother did not, dying within days. Tycho’s father, Otte Brahe, was the proud proprietor of Knutstorp’s Castle, at the time more of a modern and elegant abode than a fortified construction. Otte was an ambitious man who spent a lot of time at court, and I imagine he was more than pleased when his wife presented him with a healthy male heir. Other than little Tycho, Otte and his wife had a daughter and were to be blessed with yet another girl some years down the line.
Otte had a brother, Jörgen. This gentleman was very high in the Danish king’s favour, and just like Otte he had contracted an advantageous marriage. Unfortunately, Jörgen and his wife were childless. For some odd reason, at some point Otte and his wife had promised Jörgen that they’d hand over one of their own childen to Jörgen to raise as his own.
“A boy,” Jörgen demanded. (After all, what use was a girl?)
“Yes, yes, of course a boy,” Otte replied, but I’m thinking he kept his fingers crossed, coerced into making a promise he had no intention of keeping – unless he and his Beate were blessed with several sons.
Jörgen waited and waited for the promised child. When brother Otte made no move to hand over little Tycho – the only male child – Jörgen took things in his own hands and abducted Tycho, who at the time was around two. One can only imagine the grief this caused to Beate and Otte, but for some strange reason they never attempted to reclaim their son. Maybe Jörgen had a gigantic IOU on Otte, or maybe there was a sinister secret in Otte’s past, but whatever the case, Otte stood aside and allowed his heir to be raised by Jörgen.
Early on, it became apparent Tycho was nothing short of brilliant. When other boys were galloping about waving wooden swords, our Tycho was pondering the beauty of algebra, and at the early age of twelve he began his studies at the University of Copenhagen. His uncle wanted Tycho to study law. So Tycho did, but early on he became fascinated with astronomy – the solar eclipse of 1560 played a mayor part – and was soon conducting extensive studies in astronomy on the side, adequately tutored by various university professors who recognised the boy’s obvious talents for science.
Jörgen was not pleased. Tycho was destined for a career as a civil servant, not that of a romantic star-gazer. Tycho heatedly argued there was nothing romantic about astronomy, it was a science, thank you very much. Jörgen scoffed and in 1562 bundled the adolescent Tycho off to Leipzig where Tycho was expected to study more law. Tycho somehow added astronomy to his curriculum – in secret.
In 1565, Jörgen Brahe died, this as a consequence of pneumonia he contracted while saving the Danish king, Frederick II from drowning. At the time, Tycho was in Rostock, officially still studying law while in reality spending his days immersed in his beloved astronomy. At the time, the study of the heavenly bodies was conducted without telescopes – it was more a matter of quadrants and astrolabes and complex mathematical calculations.
It was while at Rostock that Tycho had one of the more formative encounters of his life. You see, in December of 1566, Tycho fought a sword duel against a certain Manderup Parsberg. One would have thought the duel was about a fair damsel, hot passion burning through the loins of both young men. Nope. This duel was not fuelled by such base motivations. Tycho and Manderup had spent most of December arguing about a mathematical formula, and apparently at some point Tycho decided enough was enough and challenged his opponent to a duel. Not, I would argue, the most logical approach to sorting a mathematical conundrum, and the end result was that Manderup somehow managed to cut off Tycho’s nose. Young Tycho was disfigured for life.
As per legend, Tycho took to wearing a silver nose. Or maybe a gold nose. In actual fact, he probably had several prosthetics – a sort of mix and match approach which allowed him to use his silver nose when wearing black, his gold version for the more extravagant celebrations, while for everyday wear he’d probably opt for copper, a somewhat lighter material. As per the examinations of Brahe’s remains (and the poor man has been exhumed a couple of times – more of that later) it seems he mostly wore a brass nose – maybe he felt it went better with his general skin tone.
When Tycho returned to Denmark in 1567, our young hero was not only recognised as being a brilliant rising star in the field of astronomy, but this stuff with his nose had made him a celebrity, and we all know that being a celebrity – for whatever reasons – has a way of opening doors. Plus, Tycho had his dead uncle, whose selfless actions to save the king had forever engraved the name “Brahe” in the king’s grateful heart.
With Jörgen dead, Otte chose to reassert himself in his son’s life and insisted he should take up law. This Tycho did grudgingly, managing to find time to make various study trips abroad to further his astronomical interests. Otte died in 1571, and free of any parental guidance Tycho decided to devote himself full time to his passion: the stars.
The king was all for it. He needed a personal astronomer, and he was deeply suspicious of all these foreign princes (mostly German) who wanted to lure Tycho into their service. So the king granted Tycho the island of Ven where Tycho built a magnificent castle-slash-observatory called Uranienborg. Tycho was as happy as a calf in clover: he had his observatory, he had sufficient backing from the king to build ever more exact instruments, and he was also in love.
Tycho’s lady was a certain Kirsten, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Strangely enough, they never married, they just lived together for thirty-odd years, a lifelong relationship that resulted in a number of children. Denmark, being rather progressive for the times, considered a permanent relationship between a man and a woman that had lasted for longer than three years as a valid marriage – the children would inherit goods and wealth but no titles or land. Maybe that is why Kirsten’s father didn’t insist on a formal marriage – Tycho was a nobleman, and for him to marry a mere minister’s daughter would be to marry well beneath his status.
There are various stories from Tycho’s years as the golden boy of Danish astronomy. First of all, he became very rich. The king’s favour ensured a steady flow of funds as did his students at Uranienborg, his academic books – among other things he was one of the first to discover the supernova phenomenum.It was an open secret that Tycho Brahe had extensive laboratories at Uranienborg dedicated to the science of alchemy, and every now and then there’d be a snide comment or two insinuating that maybe his riches were due to his black arts.
Secondly, he gave impressive parties. People went a bit wild and crazy as demonstrated by the story surrounding Tycho’s tame moose who apparently joined in at these events, one time drinking so much beer the poor animal fell down the stairs and died. And then, of course, there were the rumours about Tycho and the queen…
The Danish queen was one Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow. Twenty-three years younger than her husband, she’d been wed at the age of fourteen and while it seems she rubbed along moderately well with Frederick II, she was sufficiently disturbed by the king’s immoderate drinking, eating and whoring to send her three eldest children to be raised by her parents. Sophie was a well-educated lady with a keen interest in science. In the 16th century, astronomy was a bit of a fad among the royals – consider Catherine de Medici in France, for example – and so Sophie was more than happy to spend time with the gifted and handsome Tycho. Too much time, some said.
Whether or not there was any truth in these rumours, they were to come back and bite Tycho. Some say Shakespeare was inspired by the whispered stories of the Danish queen and Tycho, that this was the starting point for setting Hamlet in Denmark. Seeing as no one ever accused Sophie – or Tycho – of having poisoned Frederick II, I find this doubtful.
In 1588, Frederick died and his young son Christian IV became the new king of Denmark. I have a lot of time for Christian – well, except for his obsession with witches. Just like his brother-in-law James VI&I, Christian saw witches everywhere, leading to quite the spike in executed “witches” – but Christian had no time for Tycho. The astronomer and the king quarrelled repeatedly (Christian had also heard those rumours about his mother and Tycho), and in 1597 Tycho saw no option but to leave Denmark for good. A king given to believing in witches could very well insist an astronomer with a fascination for the ancient art of alchemy was nothing but a sorcerer, and Tycho, understandably, had no desire to end his days at the stake.
What Denmark did not want, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was more than delighted to welcome to his court. So in 1599 Tycho moved to Prague, was given an observatory by Rudolf – and en extremely gifted assistant, Johannes Kepler. Over the coming years, Tycho compiled his extensive data regarding the positioning of the stars (and it is considered his detailed work in this area is nothing less than impressive, given the instruments he had at his disposal) and argued happily with Kepler regarding the geocentric versus heliocentric view of the universe.
Kepler, just like Copernicus, argued for a heliocentric view – i.e. the planets revolve around the sun. The Church proposed a geocentric view, i.e. the sun, the moon and all other heavenly bodies orbited round the Earth. Tycho Brahe proposed a compromise: his empirical observations made it difficult for him to embrace a geocentric view, but neither was he willing to support a heliocentric theory – Brahe was a devout man and argued that it was impossible to disregard what Scripture had to say on the matter – so he suggested a geo-heliocentric theory. Umm…Talk about wanting to eat your cake and have it.
Very briefly, Tycho’s theory proposed that the Earth was a “lazy” celestial body, and so it couldn’t orbit round anything. Instead, Tycho stated that the sun and the moon orbited round the stationary slothful Earth, while all other planets revolved around the sun. Kepler tore at his hair and groaned out loud at this nonsense but never managed to convince Tycho he was wrong.
In 1601, Tycho was invited to attend a banquet. As always, beer and wine flowed, and as per Kepler at some point Tycho began complaining about his full bladder – but etiquette forbade him to leave the room. So instead, Tycho pressed his thighs together and gritted his teeth, refusing to give in to his bodily needs. No sooner was the banquet over but he staggered outside to relieve himself, but somehow his bladder had stopped functioning and so he could only pass a very small amount of urine – under considerable pain. As Kepler writes things, eleven days later, Brahe was dead of a burst bladder. This is the second thing Tycho Brahe is famous for: his burst bladder. Except, of course, that some insist he was murdered…
Tycho Brahe has been exhumed twice. When the first exhumation revealed high levels of mercury in Tycho’s remaining hair, the murder theory had a field day. Two potential villains emerged: Christain IV, to rid himself of his mother’s purported lover, or Johannes Kepler, determined to get his hands on Tycho Brahe’s extensive academic data. My money would have been on Kepler who was quick to take possession of all Tycho’s writings after his death.
However, the most recent exhumation indicates the mercury levels were normal for a person living in Tycho’s time and indulging in alchemical experiments. Instead, the latest investigation concluded the poor man had, in fact, died of a burst bladder – or a galloping case of uremia.
So there you have it: Tycho Brahe, the noseless man who died most ignobly due to his weak bladder. Not, I feel, the most fitting of epitaphs for a man who laid most of the groundwork for Kepler’s astronomical work. Obviously, Tycho Brahe is no longer in a position to care, but when next in Prague why not visit his tomb and whisper that yes, you know about his nose and his bladder, but you also know much more: like how he was abducted by his uncle, fought a duel for a mathematical principle, loved his woman for three decades, was a brilliant scientist, and, apparently, incredibly polite. How else to explain not sneaking out to relieve himself at that banquet?