We left Georg Joachim Rheticus(1514–1574) just setting out on his journey from Feldkirch to Frombork for what would turn out to be one of the most fateful meetings in the history of science. Our wealthy professor of mathematics travelled in style accompanied by a famulus Heinrich Zell (?–1564), a Wittenberg student, who would later have a career as cartographer, astronomer and librarian. What is rarely mentioned in detail is that Rheticus travelled from Feldkirch to Wittenberg, which is where he collected Zell, and then having acquired permission to extend his sabbatical, continued on his way to Frombork. In total this is a journey of more than 1500 kilometres, hard enough even today but a major expedition in the middle of the sixteenth century.
We have no direct account of the initial meeting between the twenty-five year old mathematics professor and the sixty-six year old cathedral canon.
They obviously got on well, as Rheticus ended staying in the area for two and a half years. Shortly after his arrival Rheticus fell ill and Copernicus took him to Löbau, the home of his friend Tiedemann Giese (1480–1550) Bishop of Kulm, to convalesce.
This episode illustrates an important aspect of Rheticus’ visit. Here was a Lutheran Protestant professor of mathematics from the home of Lutheran Protestantism, Wittenberg University visiting a Catholic cathedral canon in the middle of a deeply Catholic area. Despite the fact that this visit took place in the middle of the Reformation and the beginnings of the Counter Reformation Rheticus was always treated as an honoured guest by all those, who received him whether Protestant, Albrecht, Duke of Prussia,
or Catholic, Copernicus, Giese and above all the Prince-Bishop of Frombork, Johannes Danticus (1485–1548), who although strongly anti-Reformation was also an admirer of Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), whom he had met personally.
This courtesy across the religious divide amongst scholars during this period of European religious turmoil was actually very common and contradicts a popular image of hate, rejection and bigotry on all fronts and at all levels.
We know of Rheticus’ convalescence in Löbau, because he mentions it on the first page of his Narratio Prima (The First Account) the booklet he wrote shortly after his arrival in Frombork and the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentric system. He explains that because of his illness he has had barely ten weeks to familiarise himself with the manuscript of Copernicus’ magnum opus in order to describe and explain it in the Narratio Prima, which is an open letter to Johannes Schöner, his Nürnberger astrology teacher and one of Johannes Petreius’ expert editors.
The introduction also makes clear that he had promised Schöner, and probably through him Petreius, this report before leaving Nürnberg. Johannes Petreius’ dedicatory letter to Rheticus in his edition of the fourteenth-century physician Antonius de Motulmo’s De iudiciis nativitatumwas a direct response to the Narratio Prima. He goes on to give a very brief outline of the work, making no mention of the fact that Copernicus’ system is heliocentric. He says that he has mastered the first three books, of six, grasped a general idea of the forth and begun to conceive the hypotheses of the rest. He says he is going to skip the first two books for which he has a special plan; he originally intended to write a Narratio Secunda, which never materialised. He then plunges into his description.
The first four sections are technical astronomical accounts of: The Motion of the Fixed Stars, General Considerations of the Tropical Year, The Change in the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, and The Eccentricity of the Sun and the Motion of the Solar Apogee. In the fifth section, The Kingdom of the World Change with the Motion of the Eccentric, Rheticus changes tack completely and presents us with an astrological theory of cyclical historical change. I shall quote the beginning of this extraordinary section:
I shall add a prediction. We see that all kingdoms have had their beginnings when the centre of the eccentric was at a special point on the small circle. Thus, when the eccentricity of the sun was at its maximum, the Roman government became a monarchy; as the eccentricity decreased, Rome too declined, as aging, and then fell. When the eccentricity reached the boundary and quadrant of mean value, the Mohammedan faith was established; another great empire came into being and increased very rapidly, like the change in the eccentricity. A hundred years hence, when the eccentricity will be at its minimum, this empire too will complete its period.
This calculation does not differ much from the saying of Elijah, who prophesied under divine inspiration that the world would endure only 6,000 years, during which time nearly two revolutions are completed.
There is nothing about this to be found in Copernicus’ De revolutionibus but Copernicus certainly read the Narratio Prima before it was published and didn’t object to it or ask Rheticus to remove it. Such astrological cyclical theories of history were en vogue during the Early Modern Period. The most well known one was written by Johannes Carion (1499–1537), who together with Philipp Melanchthon was a student of Johannes Stöffler (1442–1531). Carion had also received language tuition from the slightly older Melanchthon. Carion was court astrologer to the Elector Joachim I of Brandenburg (1484–1535).
Carion wrote a chronicle based on Biblical prophecies, which divided world history into three 2000-year periods. The chronicle was published shortly after Carion’s death. Following Carion’s death this chronicle passed into Melanchthon’s hands, who reworked it and published it again. Rheticus a student of Melanchthon obviously joined the Carion tradition in his astrological excurse in the Narratio Prima, which goes into long technical detail on the following pages.
In the next section Rheticus returns to Copernicus’ astronomy, Special Consideration of the Length of the Tropical Year. Up till now we have no indication at all from Rheticus that the system he is describing is a heliocentric one. We are now about one third of the way through and Rheticus’ next section is General Considerations Regarding the Motions of the Moon,Together with the New Lunar Hypothesis. At the end of this section we can read:
These phenomena, besides being ascribed to the planets, can be explained, as my teacher shows, by a regular motion of the spherical earth; that is, by having the sun occupy the centre of the universe, while the earth revolves instead of the sun on the eccentric, which it has pleased him to name the great circle. Indeed, there is something divine in the circumstance that a sure understanding of celestial phenomena must depend on the regular and uniform motions of the terrestrial globe alone.
He casual drops the information that we are indeed in a heliocentric world system in passing, as if were the most natural thing in the world. Having in the previous sections demonstrated Copernicus’ abilities as a theoretical astronomer he finally lets the cat out of the bag. There now follow eight sections in which he explains how the new hypothesis functions with the whole of astronomy.
The book closes with a non-astronomical section, In Praise of Prussia. This is a general polemic about how wonderful Prussia and the Prussian are and how well Rheticus has been received and treated by his Prussian hosts. It does, however, contain a section describing Giese’s attempts to persuade Copernicus to publish De revolutionibus and that Copernicus’ response to these enticements is to suggest that he will publish his tables of astronomical data without revealing the methods used to obtain them.
The Narratio Prima is dated 23 September 1539 by Rheticus, who took the manuscript to Danzig where it was printed and published by Franz Rhode in 1540 with the help of a donation towards the printing costs from Johann von Werden (c. 1495–1554) the mayor of Danzig. The title page is interesting as it begins with an honourable address to Johannes Schöner followed by The Books of Revolutions then an equally honourable naming of Copernicus but Rheticus, the author, is simply described as a young student of mathematics.
The Narratio Prima was fairly obviously conceived as a test balloon for Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis. It seems to have been well received and one recipient took his enthusiasm for the text much further. Rheticus had sent a copy to his mentor Achilles Pirmin Gasser (1505-1577),
who published a second edition of the book with a new dedicatory letter and Rheticus named on the title page in Basel in 1541.
The positive reception of the Narratio Prima and the lack of negative reactions seem to have finally convinced Copernicus to allow De revolutionibus to be published.
The Narratio Prima is rather long winded, strong on rhetoric and polemic but rather weak on its scientific content. There are no diagrams and Rheticus tends to rely on philosophical arguments rather than mathematical ones. He does, however, display a high degree or erudition, his text is full of classical quotes and allusions, which doesn’t actually make it easier for those who don’t have a classical eduction to plow through his, at times, rather turgid prose.
A third edition of the Narratio Prima was included in the second edition of De revolutionibus published by Heinric Petri in Basel in 1566. The forth and a fifth editions were included in the first and second editions of Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum in 1597 and 1621. As such, more people probably learnt of Copernicus’ heliocentric system from the Narratio Prima than any other source.
Rheticus stayed in Frombork helping Copernicus to prepare his manuscript for publication by Petreius in Nürnberg. In October 1541 Rheticus left for Wittenberg, where he published an edited and improved version of the trigonometrical section of Derevolutionibusunder Copernicus’s name, De lateribus et angulis triangulorum (On the Sides and Angles of Triangles), which appeared in 1542.
This very useful publication also helped to increase Copernicus’ reputation in astronomical and mathematical circles. Rheticus would dedicate much of his future life to the publication of improved trigonometrical table.
In 1542 the manuscript of De revolutionibus arrived at Petreius’ printing office in Nürnberg followed by Rheticus who intended to see it through the press.
AD CLARISSMUM VIRUM D. IOANNEM SCHONERUM, DE LIBRIS REVOLUTIONUM eruditissimi viri & Mathematici excellentissimi, Reverendi D. Doctoris Nicolai Copernici Torunnaei, Canonici Varmiensis, per quendam Iuvenem, Mathematicae studiosum NARRATIO PRIMA (To that Famous Man Johann Schöner Concerning the Books of Revolutions of That Most Learned Man and Excellent Mathematician, the Venerable Doctor Nicolaus Copernicus of Toruń, Canon of Warmia, by a certain young student of mathematics)