Sophie Brahe was one of the most learned women of her era. She was active within the spheres of astronomy, astrology, alchemy, medicine, gardening, and genealogy.
Sophie Brahe was born in either 1556 or 1559 at Knutstorp estate, a few Swedish miles east of Helsingborg in what at that time was Denmark. Her parents, Otte Thygesen Brahe and Beate Clausdatter Bille, belonged to the Danish aristocratic elite and Sophie Brahe was the youngest of 12 children. Nine of these children survived infancy.
Sophie Brahe was educated at home whilst one of her elder brothers, Tycho Brahe, studied at Copenhagen and Leipzig universities. The intention had been for her brother to study law and thus prepare himself for a career as a state councillor and soldier, but he instead took up astronomy. Sophie Brahe was 14 years old when her brother returned to Knutstorp in 1571. She adopted her brother’s interests while he was astonished by his younger sister’s love for the natural sciences.
Tycho Brahe set up a laboratory at Herrevadskloster estate, which belonged to his paternal uncle Sten Bille. There he dedicated himself to alchemy and astronomical observations. Sophia Brahe joined him, serving as his apprentice and assistant. She was probably there when Tycho Brahe discovered the “new star” he observed in the Cassiopeian constellation in 1572. Tycho Brahe published his observations in a book entitled De nova stella in 1573 and his partly groundbreaking findings made him famous throughout Europe’s scientific circles.
In 1579 Sophie Brahe married the nobleman Otte Andersen Thott, commander of Landskrona fort and owner of Eriksholm estate (now called Trolleholms castle) in Scania. The year after their wedding their son Tage was born, and he remained their only child. When Otte Thott died, following nine years of marriage, Sophie Brahe was appointed guardian of Eriksholm on behalf of her son who was still a minor. The gardens that she laid out around the castle were, according to her brother, “almost unique within these Northern parts”. Sophie Brahe imported unusual plants and, for example, was the first known person to have planted tulip bulbs in Denmark. She also cultivated medicinal plants in the grounds, from which she produced medicines which she shared with the local poor. She also set up an alchemy laboratory within her estate.
Sophie Brahe was also interested in astrology. The art of setting a horoscope from the positions of the stars required extensive mathematical skills and was at this time considered to be a serious science which went along with astronomy. Her brother, Tycho Brahe, recounted that he tried to warn his sister off of reading the stars by explaining that the art was too complicated for women. “However, she, being possessed of an unyielding intention and so much self-confidence that she steps aside for no man in spiritual matters, instead threw herself ever more enthusiastically into her studies and rapidly taught herself the basics of astrology, partly through the Latin authors which she paid to have translated into Danish, and partly through German authors on the subject”.
After Sophie Brahe had been widowed she began to spend lengthy periods of time on Ven, the island in the Sound where Tycho Brahe had established his Stjärneborg observatory. She formed part of the circle of visiting scientists from throughout Europe who came to make astronomical observations and undertake experiments in alchemy. One of these was an alchemist called Erik Lange, with whom Sophie Brahe fell in love. The couple became engaged in 1590. Although Sophie Brahe’s relatives were opposed to this relationship, as a widow she was free to make her own decisions. Lange was apparently a member of the aristocracy but he was obsessed with the idea of producing gold and had blown his entire inheritance on fruitless experiments.
The same year that the couple became engaged Erik Lange was placed under arrest in Copenhagen as a consequence of his unpaid debts. On his release he opted to flee abroad in order to evade his creditors. It would be nine years before Sophie Brahe reunited with her fiancé, and it was twelve years before the couple finally got married, namely in 1602.
The couple married in Eckernförde in Schleswig-Holstein. Sophie Brahe had already sent money to the impoverished Erik Lange whilst they were engaged and their marriage came to be marked by financial worries. In one letter Sophie Brahe recounted that she did not even own a complete pair of stockings to wear and when some of her female relatives came for a visit they gave her the funds which allowed her to retrieve Erik Lange’s clothes from the pawnbroker. The couple spent around ten years living in various northern German towns but Sophie Brahe often found herself alone as Erik Lange was constantly on the run. Another letter that she wrote described how she would fill her time by “writing, studying, and distilling”.
Following the death of Tycho Brahe in Prague in 1601 there are few sources which mention Sophie Brahe’s life. It is known that Erik Lange was certainly dead by 1615 and following that there are no further mentions of Sophie Brahe until 1623. At that time she was resident in Elsinore and had completed a 900-page long manuscript describing the family connections between a number of Danish noble families. This manuscript is held within the Lund University library and includes historical Danish chronicles, anecdotes, and information about heraldic shields. A French ambassador who visited Elsinore in 1635 mentioned that whilst walking in the town he met “Tycho’s sister, a 70-year old woman, who like him possessed the broadest skills within mathematical science”. Nowadays the Elsinore street on which Sophie Brahe resided bears her name.
Sophie Brahe died in Elsinore in 1643. Her son Tage had her buried in the Thott family funerary chapel at Torrlösa church near Eriksholm. The old church was torn down and replaced by a new one in 1844. In 1860 the funerary chapel, by then in ruins, was demolished, the sarcophaguses were broken up, and the human remains were re-interred at an unmarked place in the cemetery.