The Galileo Page - Galileo Galilei - Biography - Bibliography - Information - Links - Dr Robert A. Hatch

The Galileo Page - Galileo Galilei - Biography - Bibliography - Information - Links - Dr Robert A. Hatch

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CUNITZ [Cunitia; Kunicia; Cunitiae] - Maria Cunitz, one of the first modern femmes de science, arguably the first modern woman 'scientist', was born in Silesia about 1604, but no later than 1610, and died 22/24 August 1664 at Pitschen. She was the eldest daughter of Maria Schultz and Dr Henrich Cunitz, a learned physician, apparently from a well-to-do family. Denied any form of university education, Cunitz received instruction from her father, and in 1630 married Dr Elias von Löwen (Elie de Loewen; Lewen; Leonibus; d. 1661), a physician at Pitschen in the Duchy of Brieg in Silesia, who shared her interests in astronomy.

Known as the "Silesian Pallas" as well as the "Second Hypatia", Maria Cunitz did not confine her interests to Urania. By one tradition she mastered seven languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Polish, Italian, French) and was widely known for her skills in painting, music, and poetry, not to mention the "masculine" pursuits of mathematics, medicine, and history. Private correspondence further shows her continued interest in horoscopes and genealogy. The most noted woman natural philosopher since Hypatia (d. 415), Cunitz's principal interest was astronomy. As a prominent but little known historical figure, much remains unknown about her life and career, and further archival research is required. As but one telling example, one tradition praises Cunitz for her efforts in astronomy, as she worked all night and slept all day, while another tradition charges that her passion for astronomy distracted her from her domestic duties.

As an astronomer, Cunitz is best remembered for her Urania propitia (1650). Shortly after the onset of the Thirty Years' War, Cunitz and her husband took refuge in the village of Lugnitz, near the convent of Olobok (Posen), where she composed her work. It was an original work, it involved no translation, rather, it provided new tables, new calculational methods, and a more simple and direct solution to what is known as "Kepler's Problem," much in the tradition of other Post-Keplerians such as Ismaël Boulliau, Seth Ward, Nicolas Mercator, and Thomas Street.

The Urania propitia was Dedicated to Emperor Ferdinand III and contains an important preface by her husband which disclaims his authorship, clearly attributing it to Cunitz. Following an introduction in Latin and German (or high Dutch) Urania proptia provides an astronomical ephemeris based on Kepler's Rudolphine Tables. Not surprisingly, Cunitz's sole publication was not widely known. It was privately published and no doubt a small number of copies were printed. Today it is considered a very rare book. It hardly need be underscored that Cunitz was a Copernican, accepting the motion of the earth, and not least, that she was among the first to fathom the rich complexities of Kepler's cosmology and the mysteries of his theory of planetary motion. A full-scale study of Cunitz is long overdue.

Following the appearance of her Urania propitia, and here her efforts are not widely known today, Cunitz made repeated efforts to join the Republic of Letters, successfully corresponding with the major astronomers of the day, Pierre Gassendi, Ismaël Boulliau, Johannes Hevelius, and other advocates of the New Science, among them Pierre Desnoyers and Albrecht Portner (unpublished letters, both to and from Cunitz, may be found at Paris, at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque de l'Observatoire, and at Vienna (ONB). Nothing has been published concerning these letters, and a rigorous search for related letters and manuscripts has not yet been successful.

The few remaining letters of Maria Cunitz, however, are telling. By tradition, such letters were addressed in the name of propriety to the woman's husband. But learned communication between the sexes during this period (as illustrated below) was in its infancy. Here reigning stereotypes required careful attention to protocol as well as extensive poetic padding, for example, one letter goes on at length about the freshness of the "Spring air" and flowers "adorning the earth with varied and resplendent colors". But between the lines other concerns were at work. In the same letter there is a suggestion of something unnatural about women doing geometry. The concern is expressed in the play of words that nature "sports" with us. What does nature conceal behind those "natural curves" with "masculine minds" natural jest or monstrous sport? The interlinear text speaks volumes.

In the end, the Republic of Letters judged the Urania propitia positively. Cunitz was praised for extending Kepler's efforts and simplifying his calculation procedures for eclipses and especially for planetary latitudes. Simplicity aside, Boulliau judged Cunitz's tables less accurate than his own, particularly for Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and the Moon, and indeed, Cunitz's tables are seldom mentioned by contemporaries. A century later, A-G Pingré and J-B Delambre agreed, the latter concluding that Cunitz's Tables did nothing for astronomy but disfigure Kepler in the name of convenience. But Delambre, always acerbic, ignored the fact that a number of post-Keplerian tables, the Urania propitia included, were often more accurate than those of Kepler, at least for several of the planets. And it must be pointed out that although the Tables of Cunitz contained noticeable errors, so did those of Kepler, Boulliau, and other prominent figures of Post-Keplerian astronomy.

Maria Cunitz published nothing further. Her unpublished correspondence, virtually unknown, demonstrates that most of her letters and correspondence were lost in a fire during the night of 25 May 1656. Maria's husband died in 1661, and Cunitz herself died three years later at Pitschen on 22/24 August 1664.

Robert A. HATCH
University of Florida


Cunitz, Maria. Urania propitia, sive Tabulæ Astronomicæ mirè faciles, vim hypothesium physicarum à Kepplero proditarum complexae; facillimo calculandi compendio, sine ullâ logarithmorum mentione paenomenis satisfacientes; Quarum usum pro tempore praesente, exacto et futuro succincte praescriptum cum artis cultoribus communicat Maria Cunitia. Das ist: Newe und Langgewünschete, leichte Astronomische Tabelln, etc. [Introduction by Elias von Löwen] Oels 1650. [2 Pts in 1; folio]

Guentherodt, Ingrid. "Maria Cunitia: Urania Propitia, Intendiertes, erwartetes und tatsächliches Lesepublikum einer Astronomin des 17. Jahrhunderts". Daphnis, Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur. Band 20 (Heft 2, 1991): 311-353.

Copyright Robert A. Hatch; A version of this short biography is now in press.


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