As I announced yesterday I am playing away this week with a tasty post on astrology and astronomy on the excellent Forbidden Histories blog site. However the substitute bank here at The Renaissance Mathematicus is filled with the finest from the fine. This week stepping up to the plate is mega historian of Early Modern science and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, Karl Galle, brought to you all the way from the sunny streets of Cairo (we are truly international here).
Some time ago I realised that although I specialise in the history of Renaissance astronomy, I have up till now written no substantive biographical post about Nicolaus Copernicus. Now potted biography posts are one of my specialities and I have written them about almost everyone of significance in the Renaissance astronomy crew but not of the good old Nicky. Whilst I was pondering how I could best correct this omission, It occurred to me that my #histsci buddy Karl is currently engaged in researching and writing a modern biography of the Cannon of Frombork Cathedral. Knowing no shame, I immediately contacted Karl and suggested that he could take on the task in hand as a Renaissance Mathematicus guest blogger. With enough arm-twisting and the promise of an undisclosed number of free beers next time he is in Nürnberg he graciously agreed to write an authoritative blog post on Warmia’s most famous son. Read and enjoy!
On May 24, 1543, Nicholas Copernicus achieved every writer’s great dream of finally holding in his hands a published copy of the book he had worked on for most of his life. Having done so, he then died that same day. Sadly, he was probably unconscious when the book was placed in his hands, as we learn from the only surviving account of his death in a letter from his best friend, Bishop Tiedemann Giese, to his only student, Georg Rheticus.
I’d like to thank Thony very much for inviting me to commemorate this year’s 475th anniversary of Copernicus’s death and the publication of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”) with a guest post. While I won’t attempt to match Thony’s polymathic virtuosity on all things Mathematicus related, I thought I would try and channel a bit of the blog’s myth-busting spirit by using this opportunity to look at a few of the stories traditionally told in connection with Copernicus’s remarkable idea that the Earth, formerly assumed to be resting naturally at the center of the cosmos, is in fact both rotating on its axis and moving at high speed around the sun.
Myth #1: Debates over the Copernican theory are central to understanding Copernicus’s own life and work.
It should be an obvious point given the timing of Copernicus’s death, but virtually the entire debate over the heliocentric theory took place posthumously and without further participation by the theory’s original author. The most famous episodes occurred more than half a century later. While many writers did discuss Copernicus’s mathematical models – usually with high praise – in the early years after De revolutionibus appeared, the next really detailed defense of the heliocentric theory didn’t appear in print until 1596 with Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum. The Catholic Church only declared heliocentrism theologically heretical and suspended Copernicus’s book “until corrected” in 1616 (with a list of corrections approved in 1620), and Galileo’s trial for advocating the heliocentric theory took place in 1633.
All of these and many other less well-remembered episodes are fantastically interesting in their own right. For understanding the so-called Copernican revolution, however, they are the historiographical equivalent of studying the Bolshevik movement for insight into the composition of the Communist Manifesto. They provide useful lessons about the transformation and application of radical new ideas but are often profoundly misleading in regard to those ideas’ original contexts.
Kepler’s education and worldview were shaped by Protestant university reforms that had barely begun when Copernicus died, and Galileo’s trial took place under Counter-Reformation pressures dramatically different from the political and theological environment of 1543. This is before one even discusses the invention of the telescope, the huge observational programs of Tycho Brahe and others, and the extraordinary proliferation of mathematical texts and practitioners in the century after De revolutionibus, all of which were profoundly new developments from the time in which Copernicus lived and worked (1473-1543).
Myth #2: We don’t know very much about Copernicus’s life.
One reason why historians have often spent more time examining posthumous debates over the heliocentric theory rather than Copernicus’s own era is the assumption that we don’t have much information about his life, and this is at least a moderately defensible point. Kepler, Galileo, and other canonical giants like Darwin all enjoyed the good fortune of having not just voluminous correspondence networks but great fame while they were still alive. When they died, the bulk of their manuscripts were gathered and preserved well enough to eventually become happy hunting grounds for generations of historians. By contrast, Copernicus’s posthumous renown arrived much later and after a good share of his books and personal papers had likely been dispersed. The Giese-Rheticus letter providing the date of Copernicus’s death was one of a few surviving manuscripts that were found and published by the Cracow professor Jan Brożek after he made a pilgrimage to Warmia in 1618 in search of information about Copernicus.
Nevertheless, when people say we know little about Copernicus’s life, what they really mean is we have few documents pertaining to his life as an astronomer, and therein lies one of the key differences between Copernicus and his successors. Brahe, Brożek, Galileo, Kepler, and other notable contemporaries like Christoph Clavius and Michael Maestlin occupied a diverse range of positions across universities, courts, and church institutions. What they all had in common, however, was an ability to earn a living working on subjects related to astronomy or mathematics for most of their professional careers and to have a large and technically accomplished peer group while they did so.
By contrast, as far as we know Copernicus never earned a single schilling specifically for his work in astronomy. His professional rank was as a canon serving the prince-bishopric of Warmia, and the largest portion of his surviving papers thus derive from administrative work for the church or correspondence with regional political figures. Surveying these materials, one gets the impression of a skilled but unpretentious professional who was frequently relied on to handle some of the chapter’s most challenging tasks. If you needed a contentious land dispute settled, a sensitive diplomatic communiqué drafted, or a castle’s defenses organized during a siege by invading Teutonic Knights, Copernicus was the guy who would get it done and probably not ask for a promotion when it was all over. While these documents therefore tell us almost nothing about his astronomy, they do hint at a rather rich and interesting life.
Myth #3: We should still think of Copernicus as a professional astronomer.
Astronomy was unquestionably Copernicus’s main intellectual passion and the subject to which he devoted the bulk of his private study. Even when he was called on for scholarly rather than administrative tasks, however, it was probably not what his colleagues most valued. The oldest manuscript evidence of interest in his mathematical pursuits is a set of letters in 1510 from a spy who was attempting to steal one of Copernicus’s maps on behalf of the Teutonic Knights during a period of tense territorial negotiations in the years before their armies invaded and overran most of Warmia. (The fact that this spy later became Copernicus’s boss and effectively a head of state despite being a paid agent of a hostile foreign power is only one of the remarkable stories that virtually every Copernican biographer ignores simply because it doesn’t relate to astronomy.) This particular map doesn’t survive, but other non-espionage correspondence confirms that Copernicus’s map-making abilities were called on throughout his life for political and also economic purposes like delineating fishing rights.
Sometime around 1514, Copernicus wrote a now lost commentary on calendar reform, and in 1517 he finished a first draft of a treatise on currency reform that was later revised and submitted to Polish and Prussian authorities in late 1525 or early 1526. Throughout his career in Warmia he was also in demand as a personal physician to successive bishops and other patients. The point is not that any of these other responsibilities or pursuits eclipsed (so to speak) his interest in astronomy, but that if we are going to speak in anachronistic terms, it makes at least as much sense to think of Copernicus professionally not as an astronomer but as a government functionary who occasionally wore the hat of technical specialist or senior policy advisor, all while pursuing a longstanding intellectual hobby that was only indirectly relevant to his career.
Significantly, this is very much what most of his peer group looked like as well. To list only a few examples, a rare surviving letter that mentions Copernicus’s astronomical work is one from 1535 that accompanied a set of his planetary tables. The recipient of the tables, Sigismund von Herberstein, was a life-long Habsburg diplomat who published a lengthy geography and ethnography of Russia near the end of his life based on his travels to that country. The sender of the tables, Bernard Wapowski, is best remembered as a cartographer and therefore closer to Copernicus in having mathematical interests, but he served the Polish crown for most of his life and left behind a long unpublished manuscript on Polish history. Johannes Albrecht Widmanstetter, who discussed Copernicus’s theory in the Vatican gardens in 1533, spent much of his career as a papal secretary before publishing his magnum opus, a dictionary of the Syriac language, shortly before he died.
One could multiply these cases many times to illustrate how common it was for late medieval figures to produce major scholarly works while following varied careers as public officials or church leaders rather than solely university-based teachers. Even Albert de Brudzewo – frequently cited as a likely influence on Copernicus’s early astronomical studies – left his teaching post at Cracow University in order to take up a position with the Jagiellonian Grand Duke Alexander in Vilnius. The fact that Widmanstetter was invited by Pope Clement VII to explain Copernicus’s ideas, and then rewarded with a costly manuscript for doing so, also points toward one of the most persistent misperceptions about how the heliocentric theory was received during its earliest years.
Myth #4: Church leaders were unanimously horrified and opposed to Copernicus’s theory as soon as it appeared.
The 1543 letter between Rheticus and Bishop Giese also includes details about the only actual controversy that publication of Copernicus’s book sparked immediately, namely that both Giese and Rheticus were furious about an anonymous preface Andreas Osiander had attached to the work. The background behind this preface and the complaint that Giese made to the Nuremberg city council are a fascinating story of their own, but let’s pause for a moment just to consider the nature of the participants. You have on one side a Catholic bishop allying himself with a former professor from Wittenberg university (literally the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation) in a conflict with the copy editor of De revolutionibus (Osiander), a firebrand Protestant minister who had previously been reprimanded by Nuremberg’s council after publishing a pamphlet declaring the pope to be the anti-Christ. All of this was over a book that was dedicated to the pope, written by a Catholic church official, only came into existence because Wittenberg allowed one of their professors to take extended faculty leave to help bring it out, and was solicited and issued by one of the era’s greatest printers, a man renowned for publishing not just scientific but Protestant theological and musical works. One can argue all you like about the nature of Osiander’s preface, but short of throwing in a laudatory poem by Ulrich Zwingli or a posthumous endorsement by Jan Huss, it’s hard to imagine how Copernicus’s book could have featured a broader array of church figures who might have disagreed over certain aspects of the book’s merits but had very little problem supporting its appearance.
This is not to say there weren’t a few early rumblings of concern. Martin Luther is reputed to have made disparaging verbal remarks before De revolutionibus appeared about how certain people wanted to seem clever and turn astronomy upside down. However, this only counts as sharp criticism in Luther’s world if you’ve never read any of his published texts on Jews, Turks, papists, or pretty much anyone else he considered truly theologically dangerous. In Italy during the late 1540s, at least a couple of Dominican writers previewed some of the Catholic church’s later objections to Copernicus on the grounds of illogical physics and contradictions with scriptural passages, but these criticisms seem to have gained little traction at the time. As for Copernicus, other correspondence suggests that when he wrote of his fears that some people might mock his ideas, he was referencing not simply church authorities so much as “Peripatetics,” or Aristotelian philosophers whom he correctly feared might point out among other things that he hadn’t really answered all questions that would arise from the physics of a moving Earth.
The challenge of rewriting terrestrial physics to account for complex motions and then connect with the movements of the heavens would in fact occupy natural philosophers for the next century and a half. During that same period, much of Europe would tear itself apart in increasingly apocalyptic wars inflamed by religious tensions, and the potential grounds for heresy would expand to occupy philosophical domains including astronomy that had only occasionally been considered dangerous territory in centuries past. The condemnation of Galileo and the censorship of De revolutionibus were two consequences of this expanded politicization of knowledge, but this is not something that would have necessarily been predicted when Copernicus’s book first appeared in 1543. Ironically Nuremberg’s council seems to have been entirely unconcerned with the subject matter of heliocentrism, but they did investigate and censor another book that came out that same year because the Vatican’s Copernicus expert Widmanstetter wanted to publish a selection of Latin excerpts from the Qur’an. (See my comment above about episodes that are entirely ignored by Copernican biographers because anything that doesn’t explicitly mention astronomy is considered too boring to write about.)
The afterlife of Copernicus
Copernicus died as a liked and well-respected figure to his colleagues, but not yet an unusually famous or controversial thinker among other scholars. As a new generation of astronomers worked through the lengthy text of De revolutionibus and began trying to fit its models to more accurate observations of the heavens, however, they also increasingly acclaimed Copernicus, hailing him repeatedly as “another Ptolemy” in recognition of his great mathematical abilities despite the fact that the heliocentric theory threatened to overturn Ptolemy’s old geocentric cosmos. A memorial plaque was belatedly erected in 1581 at Frombork cathedral, and Brożek copied out its text during his visit there in 1618. The exact location of Copernicus’s burial site was nevertheless forgotten until recent years when a research team located a set of remains and ingeniously matched them to Copernicus through genetic comparison with hairs found inside one of Copernicus’s former books now at Uppsala University. (Lesson to librarians – protect your rare books, but don’t clean them too well!) He was reburied beneath a tasteful modern monument in 2010, and I had the good fortune of visiting the site last fall.
One might justifiably ask why I’ve spent so much time harping about Copernicus’s era and social context rather than going into more detail about his astronomy and mathematics. There are indeed numerous interesting things to say on the latter subject, from the ongoing debates over exactly how Copernicus arrived at the heliocentric theory to the very tangible advantages his theory offered even during an era when astronomical observations were not yet precise enough to prove the empirical advantages of his individual planetary models over comparable models derived from Ptolemy.
As much as I enjoy the details of Copernicus’s astronomy, though, I think there’s a point at which exclusively focusing on the mathematics of De revolutionibus risks becoming the late medieval equivalent of writing a micro-history of free-return trajectories as if it’s the only subject worth talking about in regard to the US-Soviet space race. To say there are other topics worth discussing is not an either-or declaration of how to do history but a simple recognition that we need to understand more realistically how new knowledge takes shape and what transformations happen when it’s applied. Especially now, it’s worth resisting the regular incorporation of figures like Copernicus and Galileo into broader societal myths about how progress only happens when a tiny number of under-appreciated geniuses, working in isolation and free of interference from Big Government, acquire their wisdom through flashes of insight that spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, after which it only remains for the rest of us to appreciate their greatness rather than numbering among the benighted peasants and medieval reactionaries if we ask too many questions. If there is a lesson to be culled from the life of Copernicus and the period that followed, perhaps it is instead that understanding the cosmos is difficult, but sometimes even a few mild-mannered professionals who work well with their colleagues might get there in the end.
Karl Galle (@GalleKarl) is working on a new biography of Nicholas Copernicus that he hopes will be completed in less time than it took to write De revolutionibus. You can browse more photos from his Copernicus-related travels here.