The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XI

Despite the high level of anticipation De revolutionibus cannot be in anyway described as hitting the streets running; it was more a case of dribbling out very slowly into the public awareness. There are several reasons for this. Today there is a well-oiled machine, which goes into operations when an important new book is published. Book reviews and adverts in the relevant journals and newspapers, books delivered in advance to bookshops all over the country, radio and television interviews with the author and so on.

Absolutely none of this apparatus existed in anyway in the fifteenth century. There were no journals or newspapers, where reviews and adverts could be published. Information about a new publication was distributed over the academic grapevine by mail; the grapevine was quite efficient with scholars communicating with each other throughout Europe but the mail system wasn’t. Letters often took months and quite often never arrived at all. There were no bookstores, as we know them today and no book distribution network. Petreius had a stall on the local market place but he probably would not have sold many copies of De revolutionibus in Nürnberg itself.


A 19th century painting of the Nürnberg market place

In this context it is interesting that the town library doesn’t own a copy of the 1st edition. For other sales, other than by mail, Petreius would have transported copies of the book packed into barrels to the annual fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt, where, as well as private customers, other printer publishers would buy copies of the book to take back to their home towns to supplement their own production for their local customers. The Leipzig fair took place at Easter and in autumn, the Frankfurt fair only in autumn. Easter 1543 was in April so the distribution of De revolutionibus only really began in the autumn of that year.


Frankfurt Book Fair 1500

The next factors that slowed the reception of De revolutionibus were the price and the content. As a large book with a complex mathematical content with lots of tables and diagrams, De revolutionibus was a very expensive book putting it outside of the financial range of students or anybody without a substantial income or private fortune. A first edition bought by the astrologer Valentin Engelhart (1516-1562) in 1545 cost 1 florin = 12 groschen. A students university matriculation fees at this time cost between 6 and 10 groschens. It is indicative that Kepler could only afford to acquire a second hand copy. Owen Gingerich speculates that the high cost of the book is the reason for the comparatively high survival of copies, Gingerich estimates about fifty per cent. It was very expensive so people took good care of it. The high price and the complex contents very much limited potential sales.


De Revolutionibus woodcut of the heliocentric cosmos Source: Latin Wikisource

In terms of content this was a major, heavy duty, large-scale mathematical text and not in anyway something for the casual reader, no mater how well read. Copernicus’ Mathemata mathematicis scribuntur was meant very seriously. This suggests that the potential circle of purchasers was fairly strictly limited to the comparatively small group of mathematical astronomers, who would be capable of reading and understanding Copernicus’ masterpiece. Given his record in the field of mathematical and astronomical/astrological publishing Petreius naturally already had a group of customers to whom he could offer his latest coup in this genre, otherwise he probably would not have published De revolutionibus. However, even if he could get this very specialist book to its specialist group of readers, they would require a comparatively long time to read, work through and digest its complex contents. The earliest known published reaction to De revolutionibus was Gemma FrisiusDe radio astronomico et geometrico a booklet of a multipurpose astronomical and geometrical instrument published in 1545 two years after Copernicus’ volume.

Here at this comparatively early point Frisius, who knew of Copernicus’ hypothesis through the Narratio Prima and and had been invited by Dantiscus, Prince-Bishop of Frombork, one of his patrons, to come to Frombork and work with Copernicus, displays a very cautious attitude towards the new heliocentric astronomy although he is very critical towards Ptolemaeus’ work.


Johannes Dantiscus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given that the main purpose of astronomy was, at this time, still to provide astronomical data for astrology, navigation and cartography many of those potentially interested in the new astronomy were waiting for new planetary tables and ephemerides before passing judgement. The earliest planetary tables, the Tabulae prutenicae (Prutenic Tables) based on De revolutionibus, but not exclusively, were produced by the professor for the higher mathematics (music and astronomy) at Wittenberg Erasmus Reinhold (1511–1553) and first published in 1551.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

These tables were financed by Albrecht I, Duke of Prussia hence the name Prutenic i.e. Prussia.


Albrecht, Duke of Prussia portrait by Lucas Cranach the elder Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly Reinhold was not a supporter of heliocentricity. Ephemerides based on the Prutenic Tables were produced in the Netherlands by Johannes Stadius (1527–1579) a pupil of Gemma Frisius in 1554 with an introductory letter by his old teacher.


Johannes Stadius Source: Wikimedia Commons

A second set of ephemerides, also based on the Prutenic Tables, were produced in England by John Feild (c. 1525–1587), a pupil of John Dee (1527–1608) in 1557. Dee was another pupil of Gemma Frisius, so this might be a case of the academic grapevine in operation. These tables and ephemerides played an important roll in spreading awareness of the new heliocentric hypothesis.

Whereas with a modern publication reception will probably be judged in terms of months or even weeks for a popular book and a few years for a serious academic title; looking at De revolutionibus to judge its reception we really need to cover the sixty plus years following its publication up to the invention of the telescope, the next major game changer in astronomy.

There is a popular misconception that that reception can be quantified in terms of those for and those against the heliocentric hypothesis. This is very much not the case. As I tried to make clear at the beginning of this series the sixteenth century was very much characterised by very lively debates on various aspects of astronomy–the nature, status and significance of comet, a lively revival of the Aristotelian homocentric spheres model of the cosmos and a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of the available astronomical data. There were small smouldering fires of debate everywhere within the European astronomical community, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus turned them into a raging bush fire; the reactions to its publication were multifaceted and the suggested changes it provoked were wide-ranging and highly diverse. It would be more than a hundred years before the smoke cleared and a general consensus could be found within the astronomical community.







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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

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