Johannes Petreius published Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543 how was this major new cosmological and astronomical work with its heliocentric hypothesis actually received in the first approximately seventy years after it appearance? Michael Fugate and others continue to enquire about or insist upon some sort of intense religious rejection of this work and its central hypothesis within early modern Europe. Did this rejection really exist? How was this work actually viewed by those who read it or even just heard about it? Prompted by the following comment made by M Clark to the last post here I shall attempt the historical outline of an answer to this question. (I am restricting this to the period before 1610 and the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Harriot, Marius and others because these discoveries and Galileo’s use of them changed the situation substantially. I have dealt with the consequences of Galileo’s behaviour in the period 1610 to 1615 in an earlier post) M Clark wrote:
Second, the Wikipedia article on Copernicus does record several instances of people objecting to the new theory on religious grounds. The Dominican Tolosani objects on both political and scientific grounds. Calvin and Luther seem to object on grounds of going against Scripture, Luther’s buddy Melanchthon really tore into Copernicus. Reading the Wikipedia article it seems there were a wide variety of reasons to oppose Copernicus, both scientific and religious.
First of all it should be made clear that the vast majority of people living in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century reacted to Copernicus’ book with total indifference. In fact most of them almost certainly never even heard of it. This is a very important point that tends to get forgotten in the heated debate over the early reception of heliocentricity. We tend to think of De revolutionibus hitting the streets with the impact of an atom bomb but in fact its contemporary impact was more that of a damp squib. It was only with hindsight that its publication was avowed to be a turning point in human history. Even in the seventeenth century the great astronomical-cosmological debate was the plaything of a small group of intellectuals and had very, very little impact on the lives of the vast majority.
Having said that how was De revolutionibus received by those that did react to its publication? As Robert Westman pointed out, in an infamous footnote, between 1543 and 1600 there were only ten Copernicans in the whole world, that is people who completely accepted Copernicus’ cosmology, and several of those never really committed themselves in published writings; the most famous example being of course Galileo who shied away from publicly acknowledging his acceptance of heliocentricity. A second somewhat larger group of astronomers rejected Copernicus’ cosmology, that is the factual truth of heliocentricity, but used his mathematical models with their innovations to calculate tables of planetary orbits etc. The largest such group were the Lutheran astronomers indebted to Phillip Melanchthon for their education and their work places. Their instrumentalist acceptance of the mechanisms of Copernican astronomy has thus been termed The Wittenberg Interpretation by Westman. This viewpoint was however not restricted to Lutherans. Magini professor of astronomy in Bologna, and one of Galileo’s strongest opponents, famously converted Copernicus’ mathematical innovations to a geocentric system. In the twentieth century Derek de Solla Price demonstrated that the Copernican mathematical model of the solar system and its corresponding geocentric model were in fact mathematically equivalent thus demonstrating that such an instrumentalist use of Copernicus was intellectually justified. In this context Owen Gingerich discovered in his survey of the annotations and marginalia of the surviving copies of the first two editions of De revolutionibus (Nürnberg 1543 and Basel 1561) that whilst the final five books on mathematical astronomy were nearly always heavily annotated and thus obviously studiously read the first cosmological book, with its heliocentric hypothesis, was almost always free of marginalia leading to the conclusion that it was hardly read at all. This evidence tends to support a widespread instrumentalist approach to the work
But what of the critics? Clavius the leading Catholic Ptolemaic astronomer of the age rejected Copernicus’ cosmology on scientific grounds but did not in fact measure the Copernican hypothesis much importance. Put simply he didn’t think it very significant.
We now turn our attention to the supposed religious rejections listed by M Clark. These rejections are always trotted out by those who are convinced of a massive religious rejection of heliocentricity following the publication of De revolutionibus. However a closer examination of these proofs tends to take the wind out of such arguments.
The simplest case is that of Calvin. The anti-Copernican quote that is attributed to Calvin is spurious and as far as can be ascertained Calvin never publicly offered an opinion on heliocentricity.
The case of Luther is much more interesting and is a classic example of how a supposed historical fact is misused to support an argument of much greater historical significance than it actually has or had. In Luther’s Table Talk (German Tischreden) we can read the following story from Anthony Lauterbach:
There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] “So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth [Jos. 10:12].”
Here we have it at last a religious rejection of heliocentricity by a very major sixteenth century religious figure, case proved or is it? If one actually examines the context of this quote then its significance actually dwindles to almost nothing. The Tischreden are just what the tittle says they are they are records of the conversations that took place around the dinner table in Luther’s house. Luther was a professor at the University of Wittenberg and like many other university professors in the Renaissance his house was also a boarding house for rich students whose payments for board and lodging helped to supplement the professor’s income whilst reassuring anxious parents that their, mostly teenage, sons were under suitable supervision whilst attending the university. Luther was a bon vivant, who greatly enjoyed his food and drink in copious quantities so his evening meals were grand affairs with many people seated at the table enjoying the hospitality and entertaining conversation of their host. The conversation in question was recorded in 1539 but first published in 1566 long after Luther’s death so it cannot be authenticated. The date of its occurrence is of course before the publication of both Rheticus’ Naratio prima as well as Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and as we have very good grounds to believe that the Commentariolus was not know in Wittenberg at this time the entire conversation is based on hearsay, the participants never having read any account of Copernicus’ hypothesis.
What we actually have, in the passage quoted, is a man in his cup making a throw away quip to impress his dinner guests with his intellectual quick-wittedness. Nowhere else in his voluminous writings or in the records of his lectures and speeches does Luther mention Copernicus or his hypothesis with a single word. Also possibly more important nobody in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries quotes this passage from the Tischreden as Luther’s opinion on heliocentricity, it is first in the nineteenth century that we find this passage being used as a so-called proof for the religious rejection of heliocentricity in the early modern period.
We now come to Melanchthon and a genuine vehement attack on Copernicus and his views from somebody whose opinions on the subject probably counted more than those of Luther. Luther was a philologist and a theologian whereas Melanchthon was a theologian, a philosopher and an educator whose main function in the Reformation was to design, create and manage the Lutheran education system throughout Europe. Melanchthon determined what was taught in the Lutheran Protestant schools and universities. In one of the textbooks he wrote for use at the Lutheran Protestant universities, Initia Doctrinae Physicae, an introduction to Aristotelian physics, Melanchthon wrote:
But some dare say, either because of the love of novelties or in order to appear ingenious, that the earth moves, and contend that neither the eight sphere nor the sun moves while they assign other movement to the celestial spheres and place the earth among the stars. The joke is not new. There is a book by Archimedes called De Numeratione Arenae, in which he reports that Aristarchus of Samos defended this paradox, that the sun remains fixed and the earth turns around the sun. And although clever workers investigate many questions to give expression to their ingenuity, the young should know that it is not good to defend such absurd opinions publicly, nor is it honest or a good example.
One should of course note that although Melanchthon is anything but polite about the heliocentric hypothesis his criticisms are not religious in nature. This is Melanchthon the Aristotelian philosopher at work and not Melanchthon the theologian. However even this fairly strong rejection of Copernicus, who is not mentioned by name, becomes much, much milder when put into its correct historical context.
Although the first edition of his book, containing the quoted passage, was published in 1549 textual evidence shows that Melanchthon actually wrote the book in 1545 shortly after first reading De revolutionibus, time softened his response. Already in the second edition from 1550, and in all subsequent editions, he toned down his criticism removing all of the insults whilst however retaining his principled rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis. However at the same time he actively encouraged the so-called Wittenberg interpretation, outlined above, and supported the teaching of an instrumentalist Copernicanism in the Lutheran Protestant universities.
Our supposed religious rejections of Copernicus and the heliocentric hypothesis are melting away at an alarming rate but fear not dear readers we now how a genuine case in the writings of the Florentine Dominican Giovanni Maria Tolosani (c. 1470 – 1549) a Papal advisor on matters of doctrine and a highly knowledgeable astronomer. He wrote a major work entitled On the Truth of Sacred Scripture to which he appended a series of pamphlets dealing with a variety of issues one of which was an analysis of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus.
Tolosani read and criticised De revolutionibus from a dogmatic Thomist-Aristotelian standpoint and here we have a genuine rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis on religious grounds. He writes:
For by a foolish effort he [Copernicus] tried to revive the weak Pythagorean opinion, long ago deservedly destroyed, since it is expressly contrary to human reason and also opposes holy writ. From this situation, there could easily arise disagreements between Catholic expositors of holy scripture and those who might wish to adhere obstinately to this false opinion. [my emphasis]
The last phrase perfectly echoes what indeed happened between Galileo and the Catholic Church in 1615. Tolosani goes on to accuse Copernicus of being woefully ignorant of both physics and logic and the first (cosmological) book of De revolutionibus of being therefore defective. Interestingly Tolosani closes his polemic against Copernicus with the following claim:
The Master of the Sacred and Apostolic Palace [Bartelomeo Spina] had planned to condemn this book, but, being prevented first by illness and then by death, he could not fulfil this intention. However, I have taken care to accomplish it in this little work for the purpose of preserving the truth to the common advantage of the Holy Church.
Here we have at long last the much-trumpeted rejection of Copernicus and the heliocentric hypothesis on religious grounds. This discovery has however one small but highly significant imperfection, Tolosani’s work was never published but disappeared, still in manuscript, into the archives and it would appear that nobody took any notice of it what so ever before 1610. There is some evidence that it was read by one of the Dominicans who stirred up trouble for Galileo in 1613 but otherwise this document lay dormant and ignored until its rediscovery in the twentieth century.
Much as some would wish it otherwise there really was no significant opposition to heliocentricity on religious grounds between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and the telescopic discoveries made between 1610 and 1613. In the period following those discoveries there developed a conflict between Galileo and Foscarini on the one side and the Catholic Church on the other not for scientific reasons but because the two of them tried to tell the Church how to interpret Holy Scripture as I have explained in an earlier post.