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Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus (link=no; ; 19February 1473 – 24May 1543) was a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated a heliocentric model of the universe which placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the center.

The publication of Copernicus' book, ''De revolutionibus orbium coelestium'' (''On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres''), just before his death in 1543, is considered a major event in the history of science. It began the Copernican Revolution and contributed importantly to the rise of the ensuing Scientific Revolution.

Copernicus was born and died in Royal Prussia, a region of the Kingdom of Poland since 1466. Copernicus had a doctorate in canon law and, though without degrees, was a physician, polyglot, classics scholar, translator, artist, governor, diplomat, and economist who in 1517 set down a quantity theory of money, a principal concept in economics to the present day, and formulated a version of Gresham's Law in the year 1519, before Gresham.


Toruń birthplace (ul. Kopernika 15, ''left''). Together with the house at no. 17 (''right''), it forms the ''Muzeum Mikołaja Kopernika''.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in the city of Toruń (Thorn), in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. His father was a merchant from Kraków and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń merchant. Nicolaus was the youngest of four children. His brother Andreas (Andrew) became an Augustinian canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). His sister Barbara, named after her mother, became a Benedictine nun and, in her final years (she died after 1517), prioress of a convent in Chełmno (Kulm). His sister Katharina married the businessman and Toruń city councilor Barthel Gertner and left five children, whom Copernicus looked after to the end of his life. Copernicus never married or had children.

Father's family

The father’s family can be traced to a village in Silesia near Nysa (Neiße). The village's name has been variously spelled Kopernik, Köppernig, Köppernick, and today Koperniki. In the 14th century, members of the family began moving to various other Silesian cities, to the Polish capital, Kraków (Cracow, 1367), and to Toruń (1400). The father, likely the son of Jan, came from the Kraków line.

Nicolaus was named after his father, who appears in records for the first time as a well-to-do merchant who dealt in copper, selling it mostly in Danzig (Gdańsk). He moved from Kraków to Toruń around 1458. Toruń, situated on the Vistula River, was at that time embroiled in the Thirteen Years' War (1454–66), in which the Kingdom of Poland and the Prussian Confederation, an alliance of Prussian cities, gentry and clergy, fought the Teutonic Order over control of the region. In this war Hanseatic cities like Danzig and Toruń, the hometown of Nicolaus Copernicus, chose to support the Polish king, who promised to respect the cities' traditional vast independence, which the Teutonic Order had challenged.

Nicolaus' father was actively engaged in the politics of the day and supported Poland and the cities against the Teutonic Order. In 1454 he mediated negotiations between Poland’s Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki and the Prussian cities for repayment of war loans. In the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), the Teutonic Order formally relinquished all claims to its western provinces, which as Royal Prussia remained a region of Poland for the next 300 years.

The father married Barbara Watzenrode, the astronomer's mother, between 1461 and 1464. He died sometime between 1483 and 1485. Upon the father’s death, young Nicolaus’ maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), took the boy under his protection and saw to his education and career.

Mother's family

Copernicus' maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger

Nicolaus’ mother, Barbara Watzenrode, was the daughter of Lucas Watzenrode the Elder and his wife Katherine (née Modlibóg). Not much is known about her life, but she is believed to have died when Nicolaus was a small boy. The Watzenrodes had come from the Schweidnitz (Świdnica) region of Silesia and had settled in Toruń after 1360, becoming prominent members of the city’s patrician class. Through the Watzenrodes' extensive family relationships by marriage, they were related to wealthy families of Toruń, Danzig and Elbląg (Elbing), and to the prominent Czapski, Działyński, Konopacki and Kościelecki noble families. The Modlibógs (literally, in Polish, "Pray to God") were a prominent Polish family who had been well known in Poland's history since 1271. Lucas and Katherine had three children: Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, who would become Copernicus' patron; Barbara, the astronomer's mother; and Christina, who in 1459 married the merchant and mayor of Toruń, Tiedeman von Allen.

Lucas Watzenrode the Elder was well regarded in Toruń as a devout man and honest merchant, and he was active politically. He was a decided opponent of the Teutonic Knights and an ally of Polish King Casimir IV Jagiellon. In 1453 he was the delegate from Toruń at the Grudziądz (Graudenz) conference that planned to ally the cities of the Prussian Confederation with Casimir IV in their subsequent war against the Teutonic Knights. During the Thirteen Years' War that ensued the following year, he actively supported the war effort with substantial monetary subsidies, with political activity in Toruń and Danzig, and by personally fighting in battles at Łasin (Lessen) and Malbork (Marienburg). He died in 1462.

Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, the astronomer's maternal uncle and patron, was educated at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University) and at the universities of Cologne and Bologna. He was a bitter opponent of the Teutonic Order, and its Grand Master once referred to him as "the devil incarnate". In 1489 Watzenrode was elected Bishop of Warmia (Ermeland, Ermland) against the preference of King Casimir IV, who had hoped to install his own son in that seat. As a result, Watzenrode quarreled with the king until Casimir IV’s death three years later. Watzenrode was then able to form close relations with three successive Polish monarchs: John I Albert, Alexander Jagiellon, and Sigismund I the Old. He was a friend and key advisor to each ruler, and his influence greatly strengthened the ties between Warmia and Poland proper. Watzenrode came to be considered the most powerful man in Warmia, and his wealth, connections and influence allowed him to secure Copernicus’ education and career as a canon at Frombork Cathedral.


German-language letter from Copernicus to Duke Albert of Prussia, giving medical advice for George von Kunheim (1541)

Copernicus is postulated to have spoken Latin, German, and Polish with equal fluency. He also spoke Greek and Italian. The vast majority of Copernicus’ surviving works are in Latin, which in his lifetime was the language of academia in Europe. Latin was also the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and of Poland's royal court, and thus all of Copernicus’ correspondence with the Church and with Polish leaders was in Latin.

There survive a few documents written by Copernicus in German. Martin Carrier mentions this as a reason to consider Copernicus’ native language to have been German. Other arguments are that Copernicus was born in a predominantly German-speaking town and that, while studying canon law at Bologna in 1496, he signed into the German ''natio'' (''Natio Germanorum'')—a student organization which, according to its 1497 by-laws, was open to students of all kingdoms and states whose mother-tongue ("''Muttersprache''") was German.

However, according to French philosopher Alexandre Koyré, this in itself does not imply that Copernicus considered himself German, since students from Prussia and Silesia were routinely placed in that category, which carried certain privileges that made it a natural choice for German-speaking students, regardless of their ethnicity or self-identification.


In Copernicus' time, people were often called after the places where they lived. Like the Silesian village that inspired it, Copernicus' surname has been spelled variously. The English-speaking world knows the astronomer principally by the Latinized name, "Nicolaus Copernicus".

The surname likely had something to do with the local Silesian copper-mining industry,
though some scholars assert that it may have been inspired by the dill plant (in Polish, "''koperek''" or "''kopernik''") that grows wild in Silesia.

As was to be the case with William Shakespeare a century later, numerous spelling variants of the name are documented for the astronomer and his relatives. The name first appeared as a place name in Silesia in the 13th century, where it was spelled variously in Latin documents. Copernicus "was rather indifferent about orthography". During his childhood, the name of his father (and thus of the future astronomer) was recorded in Thorn as ''Niclas Koppernigk'' around 1480. At Kraków he signed his name "Nicolaus Nicolai de Torunia". At Bologna in 1496, he registered in the ''Matricula Nobilissimi Germanorum Collegii'' resp. ''Annales Clarissimae Nacionis Germanorum'' of the ''Natio Germanica Bononiae'' as ''Dominus Nicolaus Kopperlingk de Thorn – IX grosseti''. At Padua, Copernicus signed his name "Nicolaus Copernik", later as "Coppernicus". He signed a self-portrait, a copy of which is now at Jagiellonian University, "N Copernic". The astronomer Latinized his name to ''Coppernicus'', generally with two "p"s (in 23 of 31 documents studied), but later in life he used a single "p". On the title page of ''De revolutionibus'', Rheticus published the name as (in the genitive, or possessive, case) "Nicolai Copernici".


''Collegium Maius'', Kraków
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Kraków

Copernicus' uncle Watzenrode maintained contacts with the leading intellectual figures in Poland and was a friend of the influential Italian-born humanist and Kraków courtier, Filippo Buonaccorsi. Watzenrode seems first to have sent young Copernicus to the St. John's School at Thorn where he himself had been a master. Later, according to Armitage (some scholars differ), the boy attended the Cathedral School at Włocławek, up the Vistula River from Thorn, which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Kraków, Watzenrode's alma mater in Poland's capital.

In the winter semester of 1491–92 Copernicus, as "Nicolaus Nicolai de Thuronia", matriculated together with his brother Andrew at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University). Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts (from the fall of 1491, presumably until the summer or fall of 1495) in the heyday of the Kraków astronomical-mathematical school, acquiring the foundations for his subsequent mathematical achievements. According to a later but credible tradition (Jan Brożek), Copernicus was a pupil of Albert Brudzewski, who by then (from 1491) was a professor of Aristotelian philosophy but taught astronomy privately outside the university; Copernicus became familiar with Brożek's widely read commentary to Georg von Peuerbach's ''Theoricæ novæ planetarum'' and almost certainly attended the lectures of Bernard of Biskupie and Wojciech Krypa of Szamotuły and probably other astronomical lectures by Jan of Głogów, Michael of Wrocław (Breslau), Wojciech of Pniewy and Marcin Bylica of Olkusz.

Copernicus' Kraków studies gave him a thorough grounding in the mathematical-astronomical knowledge taught at the university (arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmography, theoretical and computational astronomy), a good knowledge of the philosophical and natural-science writings of Aristotle (''De coelo'', ''Metaphysics''), stimulated his interest in learning, and made him conversant with humanistic culture. Copernicus broadened the knowledge that he took from the university lecture halls with independent reading of books that he acquired during his Kraków years (Euclid, Haly Abenragel, the ''Alfonsine Tables'', Johannes Regiomontanus' ''Tabulae directionum''); to this period, probably, also date his earliest scientific notes, now preserved partly at Uppsala University. At Kraków Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy; it would later be carried off as war booty by the Swedes during the Deluge (mid-1600s) and is now at the Uppsala University Library.

Copernicus' four years at Kraków played an important role in the development of his critical faculties and initiated his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy—Aristotle's theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy's mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles—the surmounting and discarding of which constituted the first step toward the creation of Copernicus' own doctrine of the structure of the universe.

Without taking a degree, probably in the fall of 1495, Copernicus left Kraków for the court of his uncle Watzenrode, who in 1489 had been elevated to Prince-Bishop of Warmia and soon (after November 1495) sought to place his nephew in a Warmia canonry vacated by 26 August 1495 death of its previous tenant. For unclear reasons—probably due to opposition from part of the chapter, who appealed to Rome—Copernicus' installation was delayed, inclining Watzenrode to send both his nephews to study canon law in Italy, seemingly with a view to furthering their ecclesiastic careers and thereby also strengthening his own influence in the Warmia chapter.

Leaving Warmia in mid-1496—possibly with the retinue of the chapter's chancellor, Jerzy Pranghe, who was going to Italy—in the fall (October?) of that year Copernicus arrived in Bologna and a few months later (after 6 January 1497) signed himself into the register of the Bologna University of Jurists' "German nation", which also included Polish youths from Silesia, Prussia and Pomerania as well as students of other nationalities.

It was only on 20 October 1497 that Copernicus, by proxy, formally succeeded to the Warmia canonry, which had been granted to him two years earlier. To this, by a document dated 10 January 1503 at Padua, he would add a sinecure at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross in Wrocław, Silesia, Bohemia. Despite having received a papal indult on 29 November 1508 to receive further benefices, through his ecclesiastic career Copernicus not only did not acquire further prebends and higher stations (prelacies) at the chapter, but in 1538 he relinquished the Breslau sinecure. It is uncertain whether he was ordained a priest; he may only have taken minor orders, which sufficed for assuming a chapter canonry.

Via Galliera 65, Bologna, site of house of Domenico Maria Novara. Plaque on portico commemorates Copernicus.

Source: Wikipedia