Not German but also not Polish

I recently wrote a post concerning the problems historians can and do face assigning a nationality to figures from the past that they are studying. In the history of science one of the most contentious figures in this sense was and apparently still is the Renaissance astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. The question of his nationality produced a massive war of words between Poland and Germany, both of whom claim him as their own, which started in the late eighteenth century and unfortunately still rumbles on today.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń - 1580 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń – 1580
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today is Copernicus’ birthday (19 February 1473) and all over the Internet British and American posters are being, what they see as, scrupulously, politically correct and announcing today as the birthday of the Polish astronomer… All very well but it isn’t factually right.

Nicolas Copernicus was born in the city of Toruń, which is today in Poland but wasn’t at the time of his birth. The whole area in which Copernicus was born and in which he lived for all of his life, except when he was away studying at university, was highly dispute territory over which several wars were fought. Between 1454 and 1466 the Thirteen Years’ War was fought between the Prussian Confederation allied with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the State of the Teutonic Knights. This war ended with the Second Peace of Toruń under which Toruń remained a free city now under the patronage of the Polish King.

As I pointed out in an earlier post Copernicus spent all of his adult life, after graduating from university, as a citizen of Ermland (Warmia), which was then an autonomous Prince Bishopric ruled by the Bishop of Frombork and the canons of the cathedral chapter, of which Copernicus was one.

All of this means that Copernicus was neither German nor Polish but was born a citizen of Toruń and died a citizen of Ermland. I realise that this doesn’t fit our neat modern concept of national states but that is the historical reality that people should learn to live with and to accept.




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

25 responses to “Not German but also not Polish

  1. I like the way that this exemplifies the international nature of science.

  2. Since the King of Poland was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the dynasty that ruled the combined state was ethnically Lithuanian, I’m surprised nobody is claiming that Copernicus was actually Lithuanian. Of course that’s like saying Darwin was a German because Queen Victoria grew up speaking German.

    • Things like this do a disservice to conquered peoples. Tesla is sometimes described as Austro-Hungarian, which sounds like one parent was Austrian and one Hungarian. It is because he was born in an area, today part of Croatia, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire at the time. He considered himself a Serb, though.

      • As soon as you bring ethnicity along with nationality into the equation then things get even more complicated. Kurt Gödel was born in Brünn then part of the Austro-Hungarian K and K. Later with the break up of the Empire, Brünn became Brno in Czechoslovakia and Gödel became official a Czech. However he objected to this and always regarded himself as Austrian even after he became a naturalised American citizen.

  3. Jeb

    One of my tutors use to like to to remind me of the perspective of a “senior and distigushed” member of the department, which he would repeadly cite to me in class as if it was some rule carved in stone.

    “the study of identity is the last bastion of the historical rogue.”

    I think the disservice here is that historians often pay scant regard to the complexity of identity and often focus exclusivly on establishing simplified accounts, detailing the shock, awe, magnificance and exceptional nature of their own distingushed pedegree.

  4. Martin

    Ermland was a part of the Royal Prussia which was an autonomous but integral part of the Kingdom of Poland. Copernic was a subject of the king of Poland to whom he pledged allegiance. Moreover, he was involved in the negotiations between Poland and Tuetonic Prussia and he represented the interests of the Crown (he was the official envoy).
    Using the 15th century categories, can you get any more “Polish” than that?

    • Ermland was an autonomous state, a Prince-Bishopric ruled by the Bishop of Frombork and the Cathedral Chapter. It was a participant in the Prussian Tag (read parliament) and stood under the protection of the Polish Crown, it was however not an integral part of the Kingdom of Poland! This statement is simply false.

      Within the framework of medieval feudalism pledging allegiance to a King did not necessarily make you a subject of his country. For a time in the Middle Ages England owed feudal allegiance to France and the English King had to swear allegiance to the French King, this did not however make him French.

      Copernicus did indeed take part in the negotiation in 1521 at the end of the Polish-Teutonich War, in which Poland and Ermland were allies. The Polish Crown fulfilling its protection obligations towards Ermland. However Copernicus did so as governor of Allenstein and as representative of Ermland.

      None of the claimsyou make, some false, show Copernicus to have been Polish.

      • Questions about whose town or territory belonged to which king or bishop were hard to answer in early modern times. Here’s an anecdote from N.J.G. Pounds’ An Historical Geography of Europe: “In 1546 the emperor Charles V, when passing along the bank of the river Meuse, noted the city of VIllefranche on the opposite shore. ‘Whose is it,’ he asked, ‘mine or the King of France’s?’ Then ‘the records of the district…were brought and examined, and it was shown that the inhabitants…were subject of the French king.’ It was typical of medieval kingship that the limits of its authority were in many areas uncertain or unknown, and when questions arose, it was usual to ask the local population to whom they owned their loyalty. Such uncertainties were one by one cleared up as they arose, but some remained until the eighteenth century.”

      • Martin

        You say: “England owed feudal allegiance to France and the English King had to swear allegiance to the French King, this did not however make him French.” The feudal allegiance you talk about existed between Poland and Ducal Prussia (between 1466 and 1657). And I do not claim people born under the Tuetonic rule could be considered Polish. The point is that the relationship between Royal Prussia and the Crown was different. The exact wording of the treaty following the Second Peace of Torun leaves no doubt. Ducal Prussia became a fief of Poland, Royal Prussia became Crown’s property. There is really no ambiguity here. Its administrative organization does not matter. Many other regions, duchies or principalities in Poland had various degrees of autonomy throughout the history.
        Of course, if your argument is that any talk on nationalities before the Englightment is pointless, I may concede. But if we play using the XVth century rules, Copernic was born and lived on the territory of Poland. In a slightly different but similar way, people born in Brandenburg could be considered German over the same period.

      • You are quite simply wrong on both your final points. Ermland was not Polish territory and so Copernicus was not Polish. Secondly German as a nationality didn’t exist in the fifteenth century only as an ethnicity. Someone born in Brandenburg would have been a Brandenburger not a German as far as his nationality went.

      • Martin

        Come on… This is some serious historical revisionism.
        1. You play on an ellusive difference between being part of the Crown and being “property of the Crown” (this is the exact wording). The Commonwealth was a composite state with various administrative regimes. Royal Prussia was explicitly considered part of the Kingdom of Poland even if with a large degree of autonomy. Not to mention that Torun was part of Poland from 966 to 1241. It was reclaimed in 1466 rather than really conquered.
        2. Ethnicity is a term as value laden as race. Speaking about “the” single German ethnicity in the XVth century is problematic.
        3. Therefore, Brandenburgians were neither ethnic Germans and according to you they weren’t Germans even in political terms. Even though Brandenburg was part of the “Kingdom of Germany”, and later of the Holy Roman Empire of… the German Nation. What was this German nation if not the totality of its peoples? Hence, Brandenburgians were also Germans, as much as Texans are Americans.
        And yes, Poland, Germany, these were the nations “in the making”. But it doesn’t mean these weren’t nations at all.

  5. Leszek Wronski

    Copernicus studies in Krakow. There’s a record at the University which says “Nicolaus Copernicus paid everything”, that is, he was not a very good student (because in such a case he wouldn’t have to pay) 🙂

  6. Leszek Wronski

    *studieD of course

  7. lucym

    Content removed because insulting and racist!

  8. A. Karttunen

    What was his mother tongue?

    • We do not know his mother tongue. But in Bologna he joined (proof by existing signin) the German Natio, which is open to all students of the “German tongue”. There are existing documents of him that he wrote in German.
      The standard reply is that Polish students often joined the “German Natio”, though I know of none who was clearly ethnically Polish, and there are some Polish historians that claim that a Polish Natio did exist (I have found no other proof on that, though).

      • We do know his mother tongue and it was definitely German. There are writings by him in German but none in Polish.

      • Axel Schudak

        Which is proof that he knew German, not that it was his mother tongue.

      • Copernicus was a highly educated man who wrote in Latin and German and only in Latin and German and as he was not born in Rome in the first century CE but in a German speaking city in Prussia in the fifteenth century CE we can safely assume that German was his mother tongue.

  9. Axel Schudak

    “Safely assume”, “likely” – Yes, I agree here.
    Proof, “definitely” – No.
    Just imho, of course.

    His joining the German Natio in Bologna is as close as we get here, unless there are documents of a private nature that I do not know about. Polish at that time was just evolving as a written language, so its not unusual that no official documents exist.

    • Corsica57

      Copernicus’ mother was German and his father moved into the Hansa to work. He likely would be be considered a Germanic-Polish similar to a Chinese-American and note, he signed his name with N rather than M (Mikolaj in Polish).

      I am not sure what the logic is or who cares to which king Royal Prussia had as their suzerain power. The Philippines had to swear this to the USA until after WW2. The Electorate of Hanover had to swear fealty to the Holy Roman Empire, but is anyone considering King George III or IV as actually Germans or Austrians rather than Brits? Even Georges I and II would be Hanoverian-British.

      • Corsica57

        Einstein might be a good equivalent. German by origin, but American by residence, much later work and even language. Is Einstein a German or American? Who did he ‘swear allegiance’ to in WW2? Well both him and Copernicus are in Walhalla.

  10. Pingback: Physics and it’s Antiquity – Ethereal Sparkles

  11. Marek Domanski

    It is funny that no one has mentioned his surname. Kopernik is Polish for coppersmith. Also Niklaus is German for Nicholas. Did he sign his name beginning with “Niklaus?
    I don’t suppose the debate is all that important. The idea of a nation claiming credit for a distinguished scientist is ridiculous.

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