A very special book

In 1543 the printer/publisher Johannes Petreius published Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, the first mathematical description of a heliocentric system for the then known cosmos, in Nürnberg. Initially appearing with little resonance, more than two hundred years later the great, German, enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that its publication signalled the greatest ever change in humanities perception of its own place in the cosmos. Today many historians of science regard it as the most important scientific publication ever. Although I object to the use of superlatives in the history of science, I do think that it is one of the most significant scientific publication of the Early Modern Period.

Title page of the first edition of De revolutionibus
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is not actually known how many copies Petreius printed of that first edition but Owen Gingerich[1], the greatest authority on the subject, estimates that the first edition was probably about five hundred copies of which about three hundred still exist. A small number of the surviving copies of the first edition were given by Petreius to selected people as presents with a hand written dedication from himself. One of these resides in the University of Leipzig library. The Leipzig De revolutionibus has the following dedication:

Hieronymo Schr[ei]ber Petreus dedit 1543

Hieronymus Schreiber was born in Nürnberg; his date of birth is unknown. He is thought to have attended the Egidien Gymnasium in Nürnberg, where he would have been taught mathematics by Johannes Schöner. Schöner later dedicated an edition of Peuerbach’s Tractatus super propositiones Ptolemaei, that he edited and Petreius published in 1541, to him. In 1532 Schreiber matriculated at the University of Wittenberg, in the same year as Georg Joachim Rheticus. When Rheticus took his sabbatical in 1539, which lead him to go off to Frombork and bring back the manuscript of De revolutionibus to Nürnberg, it was Schreiber who took over his teaching duties in Wittenberg, teaching mathematics to the undergraduates there. It was almost certainly for this work that Petreius rewarded him with a personally dedicated copy of De revolutionibus.

When Rheticus left Wittenberg in 1542, to take up the post of mathematics professor in Leipzig, his chair was not awarded to Schreiber but to the Nürnberger mathematician Erasmus Flock (1514–1568), another of Schöner’s pupils. Schreiber left Wittenberg for Italy and died in 1547 during a period of study in Paris.

In 1598 Schreiber’s copy of De revolutionibus came into the possession of the young Johannes Kepler, together with two other astronomy books that had belonged to Schreiber. Quite how Kepler acquired these books is not known.

The book nowadays known as the Kepler De revolutionibus contains some very interesting marginalia. Schreiber added one of the most complete collections of corrections to the text, not only the errata contained on the official errata sheet but also many others. Schreiber’s most interesting annotation is the addition of the name Andreas Osiander above the Ad lectorum, which prefaces the book. Kepler draws attention to this on the back of the flyleaf and it was Kepler who first made Osiander’s authorship of the Ad lectorum general knowledge, thereby sealing his fate as ‘the greatest villain in the history of science.’ Kepler added comparatively few comments in the margins after he acquired the book but those that he did add show his progress as he worked his way through Copernicus’ opus.

The value of collectable works from the history of science depends not only on the works themselves but also on their provenances, who were the owners and what did they write in the margins? First editions of De revolutionibus rarely appear for sale but when one that had belonged to John Greaves (1602–1652) the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford was auctioned some years back it sold for almost 2.5 million dollars. Should Kepler’s De revolutionibus, with its rare handwritten Petreius dedication, ever come on to the open market, which I doubt it will, I suspect the sky’s the limit, as they say.

Last Sunday I took a trip to Nürnberg to the Germanisches National Museum to see their new exhibition celebrating The Luther Year (it’s five hundred years since Luther made his 95 Theses public), Luther, Kolumbus und die Folgen: Welt im Wandle 1500 – 1600. This exhibition had lots of very nice stuff from the histories of astronomy, cartography and exploration and is highly recommended if you are in the area before the beginning of November when it ends. I was happily trundling round the exhibition giving detailed background information to my companion, as is my wont, when I rounded a corner and espied a glass cabinet with copies of De revolutionibus. One of the ironies of history is that although the book was printed in the city, Nürnberg does not possess a first edition of De revolutionibus, so imagine my surprise and delight when I realised that the first edition sitting in the cabinet, next to the museum’s own second edition (Basel 1561), was in fact the Kepler De revolutionibus, on loan from the University of Leipzig library – a very special book indeed.

[1] Much of the information in this post is taken from Owen Gingerich’s excellent An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 1543 en Basel, 1566), Brill, Leiden-Boston-Koln, 2002


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One response to “A very special book

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #50 | Whewell's Ghost

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