Nicolaus was not a priest.

Erik Kwakkei (@erik_kwakkei) drew my attention to a rather nice short video from Prager University by Anthony Esolen of Providence College explaining that the Middle Ages were anything but Dark and should actually be called the bright ages. This is a very well done little piece managing to correct a whole series of myths in a very short time span. However I can’t resist taking a pot shot at his completely inaccurate description of Nicolaus Copernicus.

Esolen says:

Nicolaus Copernicus was, “a priest astronomer at a Polish university”.

The only part of this brief statement that is correct is that Copernicus was an astronomer.  However, it is important to point out that he was only ever an amateur astronomer; astronomy was his hobby so to speak. He never taught it at a university.

Copernicus started his undergraduate studies at the University of Kraków in Poland but left without taking a degree. He continued his studies a various universities in Northern Italy, where he studied law and medicine, not astronomy, completing his studies in 1503 with a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara.

Already as a teenager Copernicus had been appointed a cannon canon of the Chapter of Frauenburg Cathedral in Warmia, where his Uncle Lucas Watzenrode was Prince Bishop. The cannons canons of the cathedral were the administration or government of Warmia.

After graduation Copernicus became private physician and secretary to his Uncle. Later he served the chapter in numerous administrative positions until his death in 1543, this being his profession and not astronomy.

Although attached to the cathedral all of his life Copernicus never took holy orders and was thus never a priest. The false claim that he was appears to have been put into the world by Galileo.

As always I find it disappointing that in an otherwise good video disposing of myths about the Middle Ages the one sentence about Copernicus should consist of false facts. A little bit of research, about five minute, could have avoided this piece of stupidity.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

34 responses to “Nicolaus was not a priest.

  1. 1. Quite right. At one time he was short-listed for the bishopric and would have been ordained had he gotten the nod; but that was as close as he came. A canon lawyer is not necessarily a priest.
    2. “canon,” not “cannon.” Although a cannon is also something of a big shot.

  2. astronomy was his hobby so to speak

    Intersting though that astronomy seems to boast an unusually high proportion of amateurs making important contributions. Besides the Herschels, we have Kant proposing the nebular hypothesis, and the retired silk merchant William Huggins detecting the Doppler effect in starlight.

  3. Well, he studied medicine and that meant he would have learned astronomy and astrology as these were propaedeutic to the practice of medicine in Italian universities such as Bologna. And he collaborated actively with Domenico da Novara, one of the leading professors of astronomy/astrology at Bologna. That may count as a little more than amateurish, but yes, it was not his full-time job when he went back to Poland.

    • His collaboration with Domenico da Novara were in Bologna when he was studying law and therefore outside of his official studies.

      To what extent Copernicus studied astro-medicine during his medicine studies in Padua is not known. However a normal astrology/astronomy course for medical students was not particularly advanced.

      • That’s precisely my point. I think he arrived in Bologna with a bit more than a smathering of astrology and astronomy. He had already an interest in the topic while studying in Cracow as testified by the fact that he purchased books in these subjects then. Westman argues that Copernicus was more than Novara’s assistant and that while in Bologna he carried out independent observations and was probably interested in checking the reliability of the Alphonsine Tables. As to the astronomy/astrology courses not being particularly advanced I would disagree: much depended on the student. Some courses were elective. The evidence from the curricula of Italian universities is patchy but there is ample evidence to suggest that physicians, should they choose to, could learn quite a lot of astronomy/astrology while taking their degrees. That Copernicus did not obtain a degree in medicine in Padua is not unusual. Plenty of ‘foreign’ (and Italian) students didn’t. A degree in canon law was much more profitable for the kind of career his family had in mind for him. But back home he practised as a physician to his uncle, hardly a negligible detail.

  4. jessemckeown

    This “Anthony Esolem” “of Prager University”… would not happen to be Anthony Esolen, of Providence College, would he? You know, while we’re on the subject of precision and vocation and all that…

  5. Difficult question: is at least ‘Polish’ correct?

  6. Pingback: Famous Astronomer 1 – Nicolaus Copernicus | Famous Astronomers

  7. Being called a canon during the time of Copernicus meant one of following: an ordained priest or a member of the Canon Regulars (priests who live in community) attached to major churches and cathedrals. During the time of Copernicus, one who studied Canon Law most likely was a priest because it was beyond the theological studies necessary for ordination to the priesthood. Today many lay people can study Canon Law but not during the time of Copernicus. If he was a layman it would be more profitable for him to study Civil Law. The probability of Copernicus being a priest is most likely than not. Those who have been asserting that Copernicus was not a priest are mostly Protestants. Even Galileo acknowledged that Copernicus was a priest.

    • I have no idea why you insist on a whole series of spurious speculations, it is a known fact that Copernicus was never ordained.

      • Bren

        It was only the late Edward Rosen (12 December 1906 — 28 March 1985) of the (low standard at that time) City College of New York who started talking about Copernicus as non ordained priest by distorted analysis of facts.

      • All the leading experts on Copernicus agree that he was never ordained so I assume you must have some really spectacular evidence to back up your claim, would you care to divulge it?

      • Sal

        Historically, if Copernicus was a canon, it is almost certain he was a priest. Just because you insist something is a widely known fact doesn’t mean it is.

  8. Bren

    Actually, it is not resolved yet whether he was an ordained priest or not. There are those who say he is a priest, there are those who say he is not, and there are those say he may or may not be a priest (please make some research, even online). It is intellectual dishonesty though to state that Copernicus was definitely not a priest. He may or may not be a priest. One thing sure however is he dedicated himself to God and his people as a canon of a cathedral, with astronomy as an occasional hobby. Now, what I know in Catholic Church parlance is that “canon” is used as a title for an ordained priest attached to a church or cathedral, while a “cleric” is a title used broadly to a priest and to a non-priest in minor orders irrespective whether he is a diocesan/secular cleric or religious/regular cleric. Edward Rosen in his article, “Copernicus and His Successors,” pages 50-53 thought that because Copernicus was called a “canon” meant he was not a priest. What scholars should find out, in case you are one, is whether during the time of Copernicus, the title “canon” is used broadly to priests and non-priests similar to the title “cleric,” or it specifically refers only to priests.

    • No serious scholar of Early Modern astronomy claims that Copernicus was ordained so your ‘some say…’ is pure bullshit. There is no historical record of Copernicus ever having been ordained so there are no grounds to believe that he ever was. It is a well known fact that many of the canons of the Chapter of Frauenburg Cathedral were not ordained the position being in fact a political sinecure. As I say if you have proof of the contrary then produce it, it would be a mild history of science sensation.

      In answer to your implied insult I do regard myself as a scholar and am in fact regarded as one by my peers, you, however, on the evidence of your unsubstantiated waffling are obviously not one.

  9. Bren

    I am not insulting you. I am sorry if you get it that way. But we should turn to Church historians to resolve the issue. But really what is the big deal to proclaim to the whole world that Copernicus was not a priest. Not a priest or a priest, Copernicus embraced, even though initially influenced by his uncle, the life of a canon in the service of God and God’s people until his death.

    • The issue has long been resolved by historians including church ones Copernicus was not ordained.

      A brief footnote to your unsubstantiated and incorrect comment that canons of a cathedral chapter were by definition ordained. One of the rules introduced as part of the Counter-Reformation at the end of the Council of Trent, which took place after Copernicus’ death, was that at least 50% of the canons of a cathedral chapter must in future be ordained!

      The canons of the Cathedral Chapter of Frauenberg did not serve God but mammon. They were the political administration of the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia (Ermland) a self-governing enclave between Prussia and Poland.

  10. Bren

    According to Euroschool website:“The dispute concerning Copernicus being a priest has not been
    decided yet.” Edward Rosen article, “Galileo’s Misstatements about Copernicus” ( states on page 320, “The simple truth of the matter is that Copernicus was neither a monk nor a friar nor a priest” but he failed to mention Copernicus was a canon. Canons are similar or probably higher in ecclesiastical status compared to monks and friars (who are priests and brothers) since canons are (or supposed to be) priests according to Canon Law. I don’t think it was clear for Rosen what’s a canon. Also, Rosen’s motive for omitting that Copernicus is a canon on the mentioned sentence is suspect. Now you might be right that Copernicus probably was not an ordained priest but it remains a historical fact that he was a man of the cloth or a cleric being a canon, and not a layman. But no mention or record of ordination does not mean one was not ordained. Many known medieval bishops and priests have no records of their ordinations but they were recognized bishops and priests by the people because they, or many, witnessed their ordinations.

  11. I’m trying to imagine why someone would care so intently, at this late date, whether Copernicus was a priest. Of course serious scholars, like Thony, care about getting the facts right, just on general principles. Rosen’s article makes Galileo’s polemical purpose clear. The Galileo affair continues to incite passions because of the common perception (incorrect, IMO) that it says something about our modern religion-science wars. But Copernicus?

    Of course, passions are passions. The mere title of R.R. Newton’s book The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy (no, he didn’t murder his wife’s lover — he may have doctored some data (or maybe not)) says enough about this.

  12. padre

    In fact it, it is certain that he was in orders, as a Canon he was not a Canon lawyer, but rather a cleric attached to a Cathedral. Whether he was in Holy Orders as a Priest is not absolutely certain, although it is likely because the ancient practice of electing non-priests to bishoprics had greatly diminished and was limited to noble or political appointments.

    • padre

      There are seven ranks of Orders btw the last being priesthood.

      It is very difficult to prove something didn’t happen. A record of marriage would prove he was not a priest, but he never married.

      • I have no idea why you and Bren are so keen to dispute the known historical facts. Copernicus was appointed a canon of the chapter of Frauenberg Cathedral whilst still a teenager and was certainly not ordained in any form what so ever at the time.
        If you had bothered to read my last comment on this theme you would have noted the following: One of the rules introduced as part of the Counter-Reformation at the end of the Council of Trent, which took place after Copernicus’ death, was that at least 50% of the canons of a cathedral chapter must in future be ordained!

        That means in case you are not able to interpret it for yourself that it was common practice for non-ordained people to be appointed cathedral canon’s at the time.

  13. Jeb

    “As always I find it disappointing that in an otherwise good video disposing of myths about the Middle Ages the one sentence about Copernicus should consist of false facts.”

    The video on the middle ages being a period of light is flagged as private (not sure if that’s just a u.k issue or my browser).

    I came across a blog today looking for information on Immanuel Velikovsky titled “The Velikovsky Rule”. The author reports its a story told to him by the head of Princeton’s Astronomy department in regard to Velikovsky’s work.

    “The astronomy is nonsense, of course,” said the astronomer, “but the anthropology is really interesting.”

    “What a coincidence,” replied the anthropologist. “The anthropology is nonsense, but we think the astronomy is really interesting.”

    Not an identical match but a rather nice bit of academic story telling.

  14. Kurt

    In principle and by modern standards, a canon would be a priest. But at the time it was not at all unusual for a canon to be only in minor orders. While it happened, it was considered by some to be an abuse — an often was, a way to provide a church salary to some favored nephew. But in this case as with some others, it was also a way to keep a brilliant and well educated man in church service.

    Because is was sometimes scandalous, it would not be surprising that if he was only in minor orders, that fact was not brought up excessively.

  15. Anthony

    In 1537 The king of Poland put Copernicus on a list of candidates for the episcopal seat of Ermland, making it likely that he was a priest. I am still not 100% sure, but I certainly would not say that he was not a priest. Much evidence leans towards him being a priest. The ordination documents have not been produced, but if you could not find his birth certificate, I would not deny that he was born.

    • I have no idea why you and others are so obsessed with trying to prove all the expert historians who spent their lives studying Copernicus wrong by saying that Copernicus was a priest but your piece of ‘evidence’ is nothing of the sort, as you would know if you knew anything about Renaissance Church history.
      Danticus, a career diplomat, who actually was appointed Prince Bishop of Ermland in 1538 had previously been appointed Bishop of Kulm in 1530. However he was first anointed a priest in 1533!
      Being on a list of candidates for a Church post is not an indication of priesthood, such anointings into the priesthood after appointment to high Church office were very common in the period.

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