A rose by any other name…

Darin at PACHS has another in his occasional series of posts on the history of science of Philadelphia. This time he has written about a monument put up by the local Polish community to celebrate, as he writes, Mikolaj Kopernik a.k.a. Copernicus. He then goes on to explain that the monument has been taken up by the Fairmont Park Art Association in their Museum Without Walls but explains that in their explanation they emphasise the religion versus science dispute or debate.

However this monument actual represents a different and just as bitter dispute in the history of science, nationalism.  Copernicus has to be the only scientist in the whole of history who has two official, designated by the respective governments, names, in Poland he is officially Kopernik and in Germany Kopernikus. The irony of this situation is that both names are 100% fake and historically incorrect.

The whole story starts at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the modern Copernicus myth. In the 16th century Copernicus enjoyed a reputation as one of Europe’s leading mathematical astronomers and as astronomers were not regarded as very high on the social scale that didn’t mean very much. In the 17th century his star waned and he just became an obscure astronomer from the north of Europe. Late in the 18th century intellectuals, led by Kant, started to create the myth of the scientific revolution with Copernicus as its leading player. This was also a period of extreme nationalism within Europe and with Copernicus’ raising status the question of his nationality became an important issue with both the Poles and the Germans staking a claim. This produced a bizarre orthographic war. The Poles took a lead claiming him for Poland and referring to him as Kopernik, supposedly his family name, and not Copernicus to emphasise his Polishness. The Germans countered by turning his Latin name into German with two Ks instead of the two Cs, the first case of this variant being produced by Herder. In the 20th century the Germans, in the shape of those ultra-nationalists the Nazis, introduced a law, actually the equivalent of an order in council, making the form Kopernikus obligatory in German spelling. It is one of the scandals of post Nazi Germany that this law is still in force.

As already stated the irony of this situation is that both the Polish and the German forms are completely bogus. Copernicus lived long before spelling in any European languages had been normalised, his original family name occurs on a number of official and bureaucratic documents in more than forty different orthographic variations but the one form that never occurs is Kopernik. The Latinised version of his name exists in about ten different variation but always written with Cs and never with Ks. The internationally accepted Copernicus is the variant used on the title page of his De revolutionibus.

The whole sorry dispute is made even more pathetic by the fact that Copernicus was neither a German nor a Pole but as I have pointed out before an Ermländer.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

7 responses to “A rose by any other name…

  1. Pingback: A rose by any other name … | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thony,

    Thanks for taking up this aspect of the Kopernik/Copernicus issue. Copernicus’s importance in our narratives of modernity has contributed to this official onomastic schizophrenia. Have you had a chance to read Bob Westman’s review of Ernst Zinner’s Entstehung und Ausbreitung der copernicanischen Lehre: Robert S. Westman, “Zinner, Copernicus, and the Nazis,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 28(1997): 259–70 (available here

    This problem of nationalism is particularly acute in Central European nations. For example, Martin Bylica— who is usually invoked in relation to Copernicus because Polish historiography often claims that Copernicus saw and perhaps used Bylica’s celestial globe, his astrolabe, and his torquetum (e.g., here)—is regularly identified by Hungarian scholars as a Hungarian and by Polish scholars as a Pole. They also refer to him by various titles that emphasize a particular geographic connection to either Hungary or Poland (e.g., Polish scholars always include Olkusz while Hungarian scholars regularly omit this toponym in favor of Bylica’s titles that connect him to Zagreb or to Buda). Not only is this nationalism problematic because of its tenuous relationship to the past, it ensures that these nations remain marginalized by fragmenting rather than linking their histories.

    • Bylica was astrologer at the court of Martin Corvinus in Buda when Regiomotanus was active in Hungary. He was responsible for taking copies of the manuscripts of Peuerbach’s and Regiomontanus’ books back to Krakow thus establishing the University of Krakow, where Copernicus originally studied, as at the leading edge of astronomical/astrological studies in the 16th century. This explains the claims of both Hungry and Poland and also the connection to Copernicus but the nationalism just muddies the water.

      • Thony,

        You are right about Bylica’s work at Corvinus’s court and his early work with Regiomontanus. Bylica’s own copies of Regiomontanus’s texts, often with Bylica’s annotations and comments, seem to reflect their work together at Vitéz’s palace in Esztergom, ca. 1465. Before either he or Regiomontanus ended up at the short-lived Academia Istropolitana (University of Pozsony). When that institution failed in 1471, Bylica then moved to Buda while Regiomontanus moved to Nuremberg.

        There is a little evidence for him recommending Regiomontanus’s material to students in Krakow—there are some suggestive letters between Bylica and his nephew Stanislaus—but the bulk of Regiomontanus’s material seems to arrive after Bylica’s own death in 1493, when his library was sent back to the university along with his astronomical instruments.

        As you so rightly note, however understandable the desire by Poles and Hungarians to appropriate Bylica, it remains problematic and unhelpful.

    • On Zinner, he was director of the Dr. Remeis Observatory in Bamberg which since 1962 is part of the University of Erlangen where I studied and to which I still have close connections. I have naturally read his Copernicus book and taken note of the nationalist bias but didn’t know, up till now, Bob Westman’s review, so thanks for that.

      As you have commented in the past all of Zinner’s publications have to be treated with a great deal of skepticism as although a treasure trove of information they are very slap dash.

      I’ve actually held an invited lecture on Christoph Clavius, who was born in Bamberg, at the Remeis Observatory and I did say at the beginning of my lecture that it was an honour for me to lecture in Zinner place of work because although he had his faults, and they were many, he is one of the history of astronomy greats.

    • This would have meant that Bylica’s manuscripts would have been available in Krakow as Copernicus was a student there, ca. 1491 – 1495, and that might have been his first contact with the works that greatly influenced his own writings. The Epitome Ptolemei is probably the most quoted work in the De revolutionibus. However Copernicus may first have come into contact with these works in Italy as a student of Domenico Maria Novara who himself claimed to have been a student of Regiomontanus.

  3. Pingback: Long Live the Revolution! « Galileo's Pendulum

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