Nit-picking – Authors who should know better

In my most recent reading I have come across three separate examples of professional historians making a mess of things when they turn the hand to the history of science.

First up we have Jerry Brotton’s The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction[1]. I’m a fan of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series and also of Brotton’s A History of the World in Twelve Maps[2], so I was expecting to enjoy his Very Short Introduction to the Renaissance and in general I wasn’t disappointed.

Nit Picking001

He chooses to lay the emphasis in his book on the fact that the Renaissance wasn’t a purely European phenomenon but a global one and writing from this perspective he opens up a novel vista on this period of history. However when he turns to the history of Renaissance science he, in my opinion, drops a major clangour.

He introduces his chapter on the topic with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, telling us that:

Once Faustus has sold his soul, he asks Mephistopheles for a book ‘where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens’. The most controversial book that Faustus could have consulted was On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres by the Polish canon and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.[3]

We’ll ignore the Polish on this occasion and turn instead to what Brotton says about the book:

Copernicus’s revolutionary book overturned the medieval belief that the earth lay at the centre[my emphasis] of the universe. Copernicus’s vision of the heavens showed, along with all the other known planets, rotated around the sun. Copernicus subtly revised the work of classical Greek and Arabic astronomy scholars. He argued that ‘they did not achieve their aim, which we hope to reach by accepting the fact that the earth moves’.

Copernicus tried to limit the revolutionary significance of his ideas by accommodating them within a classical scientific tradition. But the Catholic Church was horrified and condemned the book. Copernicus’s argument overturned the biblical belief that the earth – and humanity with it – stood at the centre of the universe[4][my emphasis].


It was neither the biblical nor the medieval belief that the earth stood at the centre of the universe and removing the earth from this centre was not Copernicus’ offence. It was setting the earth in motion and stopping the motion of the sun that the Church found intolerable, as it contradicted several biblical passages. The myth about Copernicus displacing humanity from the centre of the universe is as far as I know and eighteenth or even nineteenth century invention and actually contradicts the medieval view of the position of the earth. The earth was not at the centre but at the bottom of the universe in the dregs. I once wrote a short blog post quoting Otto von Guericke on this subject, for those to lazy to click through:


Since, however, almost everyone has been of the conviction that the earth is immobile since it is a heavy body, the dregs, as it were, of the universe and for this reason situated in the middle or the lowest region of the heaven

Otto von Guericke; The New (So-Called) Magdeburg Experiments of Otto von Guericke, trans. with pref. by Margaret Glover Foley Ames. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1994, pp. 15 – 16. (my emphasis)

Need I really point out that the Church didn’t condemn De revolutionibus but in 1616 merely placed it on the Index until corrected, a procedure that was carried out with surprising rapidity. A small number of statements claiming that heliocentricity was a fact rather than a hypothesis were removed and the book approved for use by 1620.

Our next offender is another respected Renaissance historian, Andrew Pettegree, in his The Book in the Renaissance[5].

Nit Picking002

Once again this is a book that in general I find excellent and highly stimulating but like Brotton he disappoints when dealing with the history of science. Like Brotton he starts with Copernicus and De revolutionibus, he tells us:

In 1539 a young mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, embarked on a journey of momentous consequence for the history of science. Rheticus is not a name well known even to scholars. At this point in his life he had little to distinguish him from other graduates at Wittenberg University apart from a family scandal: his father, a medical doctor, had been convicted of embezzlement and beheaded. In 1538 Rheticus left Wittenberg and settled in Nuremberg. Here he fell in with Johann Schoener, the city’s most distinguished astronomer: the following year he set off alone for Frauenberg, a small cathedral city on the Baltic coast beyond Danzig.

The purpose of this journey was to visit the renowned astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus. Although Copernicus had travelled in Europe earlier in his life, from 1510 he was permanently settled in his Polish-Prussian homeland, relatively remote from the major centres of European Scholarship. To ingratiate himself with the older man Rheticus had been provided with three valuable scientific volumes for Copernicus’s library. This was a gift with a purpose. The texts were the work of a Nuremberg printer, Johannes Petreius, who wanted Rheticus to persuade Copernicus to let him publish the master-work it was widely believed he would soon have ready for the press. The gift of the three texts was to demonstrate that only Germany’s greatest centre of scientific publishing could do justice to Copernicus’s work: and to help Rheticus prise the precious manuscript from the old man’s hands.

Copernicus kept Rheticus guessing. He seems to have enjoyed the younger man’s company, and it was 1541 before Rheticus could set off back to Wittenberg, clutching the manuscript of what would be Copernicus’s major text. De revolutionibus (Of the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres). The following year he journeyed on to Nuremberg, where Petreius was waiting to set it on his press: it took until 1543 before the text, complete with its famous woodcut diagrams of Copernicus’s heliocentric system was ready for sale[6].

The story that Pettegree tells here is a very well-known one in the history of science that has been repeated, in one form or another, in numerous publications, but he still manages to get a whole series of fundamental facts wrong. Firstly, I would claim that whilst maybe not known to the general public, the name Rheticus is well-known to scholars. I think being appointed professor for the lower mathematics (i.e. arithmetic and geometry) at the University of Wittenberg in 1536 did distinguish him from other graduates of that university. He didn’t leave Wittenberg in 1538 and settle in Nuremberg but went on an official sabbatical armed with a letter of introduction written by the Rector of the university Philipp Melanchthon. One of the scholars he went to visit on that sabbatical, mentioned in that letter of introduction, was Johannes Schöner, the professor of mathematics at the Egidien Oberschule in Nürnberg a position to which he had been appointed on Melanchthon’s recommendation. Rheticus visited Schöner almost certainly to study astrology, a subject dear to Melanchthon’s heart.

Copernicus lived in Warmia (Ermland in German) an autonomous self governing Prince Bishopric. Rheticus took not three but six books as a gift to Copernicus of which four had been printed and published by Petreius in Nürnberg. When Rheticus visited Copernicus he was largely unknown and to describe him as renowned is more than a bit of a stretch. His renown came posthumously following the publication of De revolutionibus. There were rumours of a hypothesis and possibly a book, rumours created by the circulating manuscript of the Commentariolus but to state that Petreius or anybody else for that matter outside of Warmia knew of a master-work that would soon be ready for the press is once again an exaggeration. Rheticus’ mission could better be described as look see if Copernicus has anything substantial that could be of interest to a printer publisher specialised in astrological/astronomical and mathematical texts.

Copernicus did not keep Rheticus guessing. Firstly Rheticus suffered a period of illness and then travelled to Königsberg, where he wrote a chorography of Prussia for Duke Albrecht in 1541. Copernicus was reluctant to present his hypothesis to the world because he knew that he could not fulfil the promise that he had given in the Commentariolus that he would prove his hypothesis. To calm his fears Rheticus wrote and published his Narratio Prima in 1540 in Danzig, with a second edition appearing in Basel in 1541. This presented a brief first account of the heliocentric system and its positive reception convinced Copernicus to entrust Rheticus with his manuscript.

All in all a more than somewhat different story to that present to us by Pettegree

Next up we have my current bedtime reading Michael Bravo’s North Pole: Nature and Culture[7], which I’m enjoying immensely.

Nit Picking003

Although the emphasis of the book is on the polar voyages and expeditions beginning in the modern period the book starts much earlier. The first chapter contrasts the views of the North Pole of the ancient Greek astronomers, who saw it as the downwards extension of the North celestial pole and the Inuit who live/lived in the Arctic. The second chapter deals with the representations of the North Pole made by the cartographers and globe makers of the Early Modern Period, a topic of great interest to me, as regular readers will know. It is here that Bravo displays a surprising lack of accurate research. He tells us:

Apian was fortunate to have studied in nearby Vienna, introducing him to the work of a circle of highly talented mathematicians in Nuremberg, Ingolstadt and Vienna who were working under the patronage of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (1459–1519)…[8]

This is indeed correct and is something that I have written about in several posts and about which Darin Hayton has written a whole book, his The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I, which I reviewed here. Bravo then goes on to discuss the Werner-Stabius cordiform map projection, which is of course a polar projection centred on the North Pole. All well and good up till now. After an extensive discussion of the cordiform projection, its use and its impact Bravo goes on to say:

Introducing the perspective of viewing the Earth from above brought cosmography into line with the new developments in drawing, projection and perspective pioneered in Renaissance Europe. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), one of the most remarkable German artists, was the son of a prominent goldsmith in Nuremberg. Dürer’s precocious talent for drawing broadened into printmaking, writing and an extraordinary rich span of philosophical interests. His studies of perspective spanned much of his life and he brought back to northern Europe the principles of linear perspective he encountered while studying in Bologna. He later moved to Vienna to work with Stabius and Werner under the patronage of Maximilian I[my emphasis] Dürer and Stabius published the first polar star chart in 1515[9].


As a Dürer fan, it’s nice to see him getting a nod for more than his Rhinoceros and yes Maximilian was one of his patrons, but the sentence I have placed in italics manages to include two major errors in just sixteen words. Firstly if Dürer had moved to Vienna, he would have only met Stabius and not Werner. The two knew each other from their mutual time at the University of Ingolstadt in the early 1480s but whereas Werner moved first to Rome and then to Nürnberg on the completion of his studies, Stabius stayed in Ingolstadt eventually becoming professor of mathematics before moving to Vienna as court historian and mathematician on Conrad Celtis’ Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum. The two of them continued to work together not by being in the same city but through correspondence. Needless to say Dürer never left Nürnberg and never moved to Vienna, his various shared projects with Stabius were either conducted by letter or by Stabius journeying to Nürnberg. I should point out the Dürer-Stabius-Heinfogel star maps were not the first polar star charts but the first European printed polar star charts, there are earlier manuscript ones and also earlier printed Chinese ones.

All of the things that I have criticised above are facts that are comparatively easy to find and verify with a relatively small amount of research work, so there really is no excuse for getting them wrong. It would be bad enough if the authors were beginners, amateurs or wanna be historians. But in each case we have to do with a justifiably renowned historian and author, so there is really no excuse for this level of sloppiness.

[1] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006

[2]Jerry Brotten, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Allen Lane, London, 2012

[3] Brotton p. 99

[4] Brotton p. 99

[5] Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011

[6] Pettegree pp. 273–274

[7]Michael Bravo, North Pole: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, London, 2019

[8] Bravo p. 56

[9] Bravo p. 60


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

12 responses to “Nit-picking – Authors who should know better

  1. Saying that the earth is the center of the universe, and the dregs, are not inconsistent. (After all, in Dante’s Inferno, the innermost circle is the worst place to be.)

    Does Brotton say that being the center of the universe was regarded a good thing in the middle ages?

    Which is not to dispute that the source of the conflict with standard Catholic theology was as you stated. Also of course, the brouhaha didn’t erupt until well after Copernicus was dead.

    • In another context Brotton’s rhetoric might well mean just the middle point of the celestial sphere but the discussion on the nature of Copernicus supposed crime against theology has developed a specific terminology. Brotton’s statement Copernicus’s argument overturned the biblical belief that the earth – and humanity with it – stood at the centre of the universe, is clearly part the the rhetoric developed sometime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which claimed that Copernicus had downgraded humanity by removing it from its privileged position at the centre, the middle point, the hub of the cosmos.

      This was not the position of medieval Christian theology, which regarded the Empyrean Heaven, which lay beyond the sphere of the fixed stars as the seat of God and the most privileged place of all. The further removed one becomes the lowlier the status until you reach the dregs at the bottom of the funnel, the Earth. The only thing worse than the Earth was Hell which lay at the core of the Earth.

  2. You wrote, “Need I really point out that the Church didn’t condemn De revolutionibus but in 1616 merely placed it on the Index until corrected, a procedure that was carried out with surprising rapidity. A small number of statements claiming that heliocentricity was a fact rather than a hypothesis were removed and the book approved for use by 1620.”

    However, I have read that Copernicus’s book remained on the Index until 1835.

    • De revolutionibus remained formally on the Index as a book that required corrections until 1835. However, it was corrected and made available to those who wished to read/study it in 1620. In fact outside of Italy nobody took much notice of the Church’s ruling. Being formally removed from the Idea in 1835 meant that it could now be read without the corrections.

      • Thanks. Did the Index mention such a distinction? And do you know how many corrected copies were printed, or what their availability was in Catholic countries?

        No doubt it didn’t matter as much in Protestant countries.

        Also, why was Copernicus hesitant to have his manuscript published? He was hesitant was he not? And he needed to be convinced before allowing someone to publish it, correct?

    • Of course the Index mentions the difference. There is a document in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the real name of the people responsible for the Index) listing the necessary changes that have to be made. There were no printed copies with the changes, owners were expected to make corrections in their own copies. This was usually done by pasting paper strips over the offending sentences. Quite a few of these censored copies still exists including Galileo’s personal copy. Owen Gingerich carried out a census of all surviving copies of the 1st and 2nd edition of De revolutionibus (about one third of the total estimated print runs) and almost all of the censored versions are within Italy with almost none outside.

      For Copernicus’ reasons for delaying the publication of De revolutionibus see future episodes of The emergence of modern astronomy

  3. Ray

    You mention that Durer and Stabius worked together by correspondence. Would this by any chance have involved the newly created mail system described here?:
    And if so, how important was the new system in making these sorts of long distance collaborations possible?

    • Probably not. Nürnberg lies quite literally in the middle of Europe and during the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was a major trading centre; in fact it was one of the biggest trading centres in the whole of Europe, bringing goods up from the Northern Italian cities such as Venice and distributing them all over Europe. Such trading centres require their own communication networks and Nürnberg had a very extensive one, around 1500 CE only second to that of Venice. Vienna lies on the route between Nürnberg and Venice so it was no problem for the mathematicians, cartographers & astrologers living in the one city to communicate with those living in the other one.

      The existence of this communications network was one of the reasons that Regiomontanus gave in the 1470s for choosing Nürnberg as his base to carry out his planned reform of astronomy.

  4. Excellent post! I feel that I learned a bit, as well as mentally recruited you if I ever have a suspicion of Renaissance information. Look forward to more posts in the future.

  5. My own field being a cross-disciplinary one I well understand your frustrations and Pettegree’s problem. Once – about forty years ago – any good press found peers – often peerless specialists – who would do as you’ve done here, but *before* publication. A book didn’t go to press until the tight-focus scholars felt it was in keeping with the latest state of their own areas of study. A different sort of “Index”-ing, I suppose you could say. Today, many publishers just check that footnoted sources are accurately cited and quoted (a secretary doing an online search). Some do more; some do nothing at all. It’s not uncommon today that the author is supposed to select their own peer reviewers (bad idea, I think). Thing is an historian in one university can’t just email some specialist in another discipline in another institution and say the equivalent of – ‘Hey, here’s a great idea; how about you, O most eminent professor of another field, spend a week of your immensely valuable time proofing a manuscript for the joy of giving me the benefit of your own erudition.’ So good presses are now issuing more and more studies which do – or ought to – bring blushes to the cheeks of author and editor. I’m sure you’ll think it no excuse. 🙂

    • I can’t name names or details but in the last fifteen months I have read through, corrected and made suggestions for changes in chapters or sections in books on history of science by authors, who are not themselves historians of science. In each case they were books over wider subjects, where the history of science only played a minor but important role. Each author was acutely aware of their own deficits, as historians of science and turned to an expert, me(!), for assistance. I think the responsibility lies with the author, in such cases, and not with the publisher.
      Am currently reading an entire book on #histSTM, chapter for chapter, as the author produces them for exactly the same reason.

  6. Pingback: Linkownia dwudziesta dziewiąta – Radomir Darmiła

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