February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543
Nicolaus Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a
scientifically-based heliocentric cosmology that displaced the
Earth from the center of the universe. His epochal book, De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the
Celestial Spheres), is often regarded as the starting point of
modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the
Although Greek, Indian and Muslim savants had published
heliocentric hypotheses centuries before Copernicus, his
publication of a scientific theory of heliocentrism,
demonstrating that the motions of celestial objects can be
explained without putting the Earth at rest in the center of the
universe, stimulated further scientific investigations and
became a landmark in the history of modern science that is known
as the Copernican Revolution.
Among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a
mathematician, astronomer, physician, classical scholar,
translator, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader,
diplomat and economist. Among his many responsibilities,
astronomy figured as little more than an avocation — yet it was
in that field that he made his mark upon the world.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473, in a house on
St. Anne's Street (now Copernicus Street) in the city of Torun
(Thorn). Torun, situated on the Vistula River, was a city in
Royal Prussia, a region of the Kingdom of Poland.
Nicolaus was named after his father, who about 1458 had moved
from Kraków. The father was a wealthy copper trader who had
become a respected citizen of that city. Nicolaus' mother,
Barbara Watzenrode (died after 1495), had been born into a
wealthy merchant family that was part of the patrician class in
Nicolaus' father died between 1483 and 1485. After that, his
maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), a
church canon who would later become Prince-Bishop governor of
the Archbishopric of Warmia, took young Nicolaus under his
protection and saw to his education and future career.
Nicolaus was the youngest of four children. His brother Andreas
became an Augustinian canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). His sister
Barbara (named after her mother) became a Benedictine nun. His
sister Katharina married Barthel Gertner, a businessman and city
Numerous variants of Copernicus' name are documented. Until the
mid-1530s, he mostly signed himself Coppernic. Afterward, he
followed the academic custom of his time and adopted a Latinized
version of his name. Thus, on the title page of his epochal
book, Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De Revolutionibus Orbium
Coelestium Libri VI, the astronomer's name appears as Nicolaus
In 1776, Johann Gottfried Herder introduced the spelling
Nikolaus Kopernikus, which replaced each c with k and changed pp
to p. This spelling became popular in German writings, although
scholars argued for Coppernicus. The Polish rendering is Mikolaj
Kopernik; the surname means "one who works with copper".
In 1491 Copernicus enrolled at the Kraków Academy (now
Jagiellonian University), where he probably first encountered
astronomy with Professor Albert Brudzewski. Astronomy soon
fascinated him, and he began collecting a large library on the
subject. Copernicus' library would later be carried off as war
booty by the Swedes during "the Deluge" and is now at the
Uppsala University Library.
After four years in Kraków, followed by a brief stay back home
in Torun, Copernicus went to study law and medicine at the
universities of Bologna and Padua. Copernicus' uncle, Lucas
Watzenrode the Younger, financed his education and hoped that
Copernicus too would become a bishop. Copernicus, however, while
studying canon and civil law at Bologna, met the famous
astronomer, Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara. Copernicus
attended Novara's lectures and became his disciple and
assistant. The first observations that Copernicus made in 1497,
together with Novara, are recorded in Copernicus' epochal book,
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
In 1497 Copernicus' uncle was ordained Bishop of Warmia, and
Copernicus was named a canon at Frombork Cathedral. But
Copernicus remained in Italy, where he attended the great
Jubilee of 1500. He also went to Rome, where he observed a lunar
eclipse and gave some lectures in astronomy and mathematics.
In 1501 Copernicus returned to Frombork. As soon as he arrived,
he obtained permission to complete his studies in Padua, where
he studied medicine (with Guarico and Fracastoro), and at
Ferrara, where in 1503 he received his doctorate in canon law.
One of the topics Copernicus must have studied at that time was
astrology, since it was then considered to be an important part
of a medical education. However, unlike most other prominent
renaissance astronomers, he appears to have never practiced it,
or expressed any subsequent interest in it. It has also been
surmised that it was in Padua that he encountered passages from
Cicero and Plato about opinions of the ancients on the movement
of the Earth, and formed the first intuition of his own future
theory. In 1504 Copernicus began collecting observations and
ideas pertinent to his theory.
In 1503, Copernicus returned to Polish Prussia, to the
Prince-Bishopric of Warmia, where he resided the rest of his
life. From 1503 until 1510 he had the position of secretary to
his maternal uncle Lucas Watzenrode, Bishop of Warmia, and until
1510 resided in the Bishop's castle at Lidzbark Warminski (Heilsberg).
It is there that he started work on his heliocentric view of the
In 1510, he moved to Frombork (Frauenburg), a town in the north
and downstream of Torun on the Vistula Lagoon. The Bishopric of
Warmia, within Royal Prussia, though subject to the Polish
crown, enjoyed substantial autonomy, with its own diet, army,
monetary unit (the same as in the other parts of Prussia) and
treasury. Some time before his return to Warmia, he received a
position at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross in Wroclaw
(Breslau), Silesia, Bohemia, which he held for many years and
only resigned for health reasons shortly before his death.
Copernicus remained for the rest of his life a burgher of Warmia
(Bishopric of Warmia). During the Protestant Reformation, he
remained a loyal subject of the Catholic Prince-Bishops and the
Catholic Polish King. Throughout his life, he performed
astronomical observations and calculations, but only as time
permitted, and never in a professional capacity.
In 1516-21, Copernicus resided at Olsztyn Castle as economic
administrator of Warmia, including Allenstein (Olsztyn) and
Mehlsack (Pieniezno), and wrote the manuscript Locationes
mansorum desertorum (Locations of Deserted Fiefs).
When Olsztyn was besieged by the Teutonic Knights during the
Polish-Teutonic War (1519–1521), Copernicus was in charge of the
defenses of Olsztyn and Warmia at the head of Royal Polish
forces. He also participated in the peace negotiations.
Statue of Copernicus before Olsztyn Castle
Copernicus worked for years with the Royal Prussian diet, and
with Duke Albert of Prussia, and advised Poland's King Sigismund
I the Old on monetary reform. Holding the office of canon, he
traveled extensively on government business and as a diplomat on
behalf of the Prince-Bishop of Warmia. He participated in the
discussions in the East Prussian diet about coin reform in the
Prussian countries. One question at issue to members of the Diet
concerned who had the right to mint coin. The matter required
much diplomacy, but was resolved successfully. Some of the
difficulties were caused by the political upheavals occurring in
Prussia at the time, including the 1525 establishment of the
Duchy of Prussia as a Protestant state. Copernicus translated
his coin-reform treatise into Latin for external use. In 1530 an
agreement was negotiated with Duke Albert at Elblag (Elbing).
In 1526, Copernicus wrote a study on the value of money, Monetae
cudendae ratio. In it he formulated an early iteration of the
theory, now called "Gresham's Law," that "bad" (debased) coinage
drives "good" (un-debased) coinage out of circulation, 70 years
before Gresham. He also formulated a version of quantity theory
of money. Copernicus' recommendations on monetary reform were
widely read by leaders of both Prussia and Poland in their
attempts to stabilize currency.
Two years before Copernicus' death, Duke Albert urgently
summoned him to Königsberg to treat one of his counsellors, who
was dangerously ill. The patient recovered within a month or so,
and Copernicus then returned to Frombork.
In 1551, eight years after Copernicus' death, Erasmus Reinhold
would publish, under Duke Albert's sponsorship, the Prutenic
Tables, a set of astronomical tables based on Copernicus' work,
which astronomers and astrologers quickly adopted in place of
In 1514 Copernicus made available to friends his Commentariolus
(Little Commentary), a six page hand-written text describing his
ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis. It contained seven
basic assumptions. Thereafter he continued gathering data for a
more detailed work.
In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered in Rome a
series of lectures outlining Copernicus' theory. The lectures
were heard with interest by Pope Clement VII and several
On 1 November 1536, Archbishop of Capua Nicholas Schönberg wrote
a letter to Copernicus from Rome:
Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of
which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a
very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not
merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers
uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it
you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the
lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore
with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir,
unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of
yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send
me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the
tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this
By then Copernicus' work was nearing its definitive form, and
rumors about his theory had reached educated people all over
Europe. Despite urgings from many quarters, Copernicus delayed
with the publication of his book, perhaps from fear of criticism
— a fear delicately expressed in the subsequent Dedication of
his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. Scholars disagree on whether
Copernicus' concern was limited to physical and philosophical
objections from other natural philosophers, or whether he was
also concerned about religious objections from theologians.
Copernicus was still working on De revolutionibus orbium
coelestium (even if not convinced that he wanted to publish it)
when in 1539 Georg Joachim Rheticus, a Wittenberg mathematician,
arrived in Frombork. Philipp Melanchthon had arranged for
Rheticus to visit several astronomers and study with them.
Rheticus became Copernicus' pupil, staying with him for two
years and writing a book, Narratio prima (First Account),
outlining the essence of Copernicus' theory. In 1542 Rheticus
published a treatise on trigonometry by Copernicus (later
included in the second book of De revolutionibus).
Under strong pressure from Rheticus, and having seen the
favorable first general reception of his work, Copernicus
finally agreed to give De revolutionibus to his close friend,
Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno (Kulm), to be delivered to
Rheticus for printing by Johannes Petreius at Nuremberg (Nürnberg).
Copernicus died on 24 May 1543, in Frombork. Legend has it that
the first printed copy of De revolutionibus was placed in
Copernicus' hands on the very day he died, allowing him to take
farewell of his opus vitae (Latin: life's work). He is reputed
to have awakened from a stroke-induced coma, looked at his book,
and died peacefully.
Copernicus was reportedly buried in the Cathedral of Frauenburg
where archeologists had long searched in vain for his remains.
In August 2005, a team of archeologists led by Jerzy Gassowski,
head of an archaeology and anthropology institute in Pultusk,
discovered what they believe to be Copernicus' grave and
remains, after scanning beneath the floor of the cathedral. The
find came after a year of searching, and the discovery was
announced only after further research, on November 3, 2008.
Gassowski said he was "almost 100 percent sure it is
Copernicus". Forensic expert Capt. Dariusz Zajdel of the Central
Forensic Laboratory of the Polish Police used the skull to
reconstruct a face that closely resembled the features —
including a broken nose and a scar above the left eye — on a
Copernicus self-portrait. The expert also determined that the
skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 — Copernicus'
age at the time of his death. The grave was in poor condition,
and not all the remains of its skeleton was found. For instance,
the skeleton was missing its lower jaw. The DNA from the bones
found in the grave matched hair samples taken from a book owned
by Copernicus which was kept in the library of the University of
Uppsala in Sweden.
On November 21, 2008, NPR reported that confirmation had been
made that the skull found was indeed the skull of Copernicus.
Their website contains a portrait, based on the skull's
structure, of what Copernicus might have looked like.
Early traces of a heliocentric model are found in several
anonymous Vedic Sanskrit texts composed in ancient India before
the 7th century BCE. Additionally, in the sixth century the
Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata anticipated
elements of Copernicus's work, although he did not maintain
Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BCE elaborated some
theories of Heraclides Ponticus (the daily rotation of the Earth
on its axis, the revolution of Venus and Mercury around the Sun)
to propose what was the first scientific model of a heliocentric
solar system: the Earth and all other planets revolving around
the Sun, the Earth rotating around its axis daily, the Moon in
turn revolving around the Earth once a month. His heliocentric
work has not survived, so we can only speculate about what led
him to his conclusions. It is notable that, according to
Plutarch, a contemporary of Aristarchus accused him of impiety
for "putting the Earth in motion".
Copernicus cited Aristarchus and Philolaus in a surviving early
manuscript of his book, stating: "Philolaus believed in the
mobility of the earth, and some even say that Aristarchus of
Samos was of that opinion." For reasons unknown (possibly from
reluctance to quote pre-Christian sources), he did not include
this passage in the published book. It has been argued that in
developing the mathematics of heliocentrism Copernicus drew on
not just the Greek, but also the work of Muslim astronomers,
especially the works of Nasir al-Din Tusi (Tusi-couple),
Mo'ayyeduddin Urdi (Urdi lemma) and Ibn al-Shatir. In his major
work, Copernicus also discussed the theories of Ibn Battuta and
The prevailing theory in Europe as Copernicus was writing was
that created by Ptolemy in his Almagest, dating from about A.D.
150. The Ptolemaic system drew on many previous theories that
viewed Earth as a stationary center of the universe. Stars were
embedded in a large outer sphere which rotated relatively
rapidly, while the planets dwelt in smaller spheres between — a
separate one for each planet.
Copernicus' major theory was published in the book, De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the
Celestial Spheres), in the year of his death, 1543, though he
had arrived at his theory several decades earlier.
In his Commentariolus Copernicus had summarized his system with
the following list of seven assumptions:
1. There is no one center of all the celestial circles or
2. The center of the earth is not the center of the universe,
but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.
3. All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and
therefore the sun is the center of the universe.
4. The ratio of the earth's distance from the sun to the height
of the firmament is so much smaller than the ratio of the
earth's radius to its distance from the sun that the distance
from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with
the height of the firmament.
5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any
motion of the firmament, but from the earth's motion. The earth
together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete
rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the
firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.
6. What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its
motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with
which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth
has, then, more than one motion.
7. The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets
arises not from their motion but from the earth's. The motion of
the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent
inequalities in the heavens.
De revolutionibus itself was divided into six books:
1. General vision of the heliocentric theory, and a summarized
exposition of his idea of the World
2. Mainly theoretical, presents the principles of spherical
astronomy and a list of stars (as a basis for the arguments
developed in the subsequent books)
3. Mainly dedicated to the apparent motions of the Sun and to
4. Description of the Moon and its orbital motions
5. Concrete exposition of the new system
6. Concrete exposition of the new system
At original publication, Copernicus' epoch-making book caused
only mild controversy, and provoked no fierce sermons about
contradicting Holy Scripture. It was only three years later, in
1546, that a Dominican, Giovanni Maria Tolosani, denounced the
theory in an appendix to a work defending the absolute truth of
Scripture. He also noted that the Master of the Sacred Palace
(i.e., the Catholic Church's chief censor), Bartolomeo Spina, a
friend and fellow Dominican, had planned to condemn De
revolutionibus but had been prevented from doing so by his
illness and death.
Arthur Koestler, in his popular book The Sleepwalkers, asserted
that Copernicus' book had not been widely read on its first
publication. This claim was trenchantly criticised by Edward
Rosen, and has been decisively disproved by Owen Gingerich, who
examined every surviving copy of the first two editions and
found copious marginal notes by their owners throughout many of
them. Gingerich published his conclusions in 2004 in the
ironically-titled The Book Nobody Read.
It has been much debated why it was not until six decades after
Spina and Tolosani's attacks on Copernicus's work that the
Catholic Church took any official action against it. Proposed
reasons have included the personality of Galileo Galilei and the
availability of evidence such as telescope observations.
In March 1616, in connection with the Galileo affair, the Roman
Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree
suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on
the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine that the
Earth moves and the Sun doesn't was "false and altogether
opposed to Holy Scripture." The same decree also prohibited any
work that defended the mobility of the Earth or the immobility
of the Sun, or that attempted to reconcile these assertions with
On the orders of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine gave
Galileo prior notice that the decree was about to be issued, and
warned him that he could not "hold or defend" the Copernican
doctrine. The corrections to De revolutionibus, which omitted or
altered nine sentences, were issued four years later, in 1620.
In 1633 Galileo Galilei was convicted of grave suspicion of
heresy for "following the position of Copernicus, which is
contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture," and
was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Galileo had gotten off lightly. Another Copernican, Giordano
Bruno, had been prosecuted in Rome by the same Cardinal
Bellarmine and on 17 February 1600, burned at the stake as a
heretic primarily for his theologic views and not necessarily
his scientific ones.
The Catholic Church's 1758 Index of Prohibited Books omitted the
general prohibition of works defending heliocentrism, but
retained the specific prohibitions of the original uncensored
versions of De revolutionibus and Galileo's Dialogue Concerning
the Two Chief World Systems. Those prohibitions were finally
dropped from the 1835 Index.
It has been asserted that medieval scholars had known that the
Earth was a sphere and that, paradoxically, it might have been
Copernicus' criticism of the early Christian author Lactantius
(ca. 240 – ca. 320 C.E.) in De revolutionibus that later
developed into the flat-Earth myth.
Nationality and ethnicity
Both the nationality and ethnicity of Copernicus are disputed.
His father has been described by some as a Pole, and his mother
was most likely of German origin. The family came originally
from the Silesian village of the same name (Coprnik, Copernik,
Copirnik, Copernic, Kopernic, today Koperniki) near Nysa. In the
14th century, members of the family had begun moving to Silesian
and later to Polish cities: Kraków (1367) and Torun (1400), and
also to Lwów. The astronomer's father (probably the son of Jan)
came from the Kraków line. He appears in records for the first
time in 1448 as a well-to-do merchant who dealt in copper with
Gdansk (Danzig). In the early period of the Pomeranian cities'
struggle for independence from the Teutonic Order, in August
1454, he mediated financial negotiations between Cardinal
Zbigniew Olesnicki and the great Prussian cities regarding
repayment of a loan for the Polish-Teutonic war. About 1458 the
future astronomer's father moved from Poland's capital, Kraków,
to Torun, where a few years later (before 1464) he married
Barbara, daughter of a wealthy Torun patrician and city
councillor, Lucas Watzenrode the elder (died 1462).
Copernicus bust at United Nations, New York
The Watzenrodes had likewise come from Silesia, from the
Swidnica (Schwednitz) region, and had settled in Torun after
1360. The astronomer's grandfather Watzenrode was a decided
opponent of the Teutonic Order. In 1453 he was the delegate from
Torun at the Grudziadz conference that planned the
anti-Teutonic-Order uprising, and during the Thirteen Years' War
he actively supported the struggle of the Prussian cities not
only with substantial monetary subsidies but with political
activity in Torun and Gdansk as well as with his own personal
participation in battles at Laszyn and Malbork. He died in 1462,
leaving three children: Lucas (1447–1512), future Bishop of
Warmia and the astronomer's patron, and two daughters: Barbara,
the astronomer's mother (died after 1495), and Christina (died
before 1502), who in 1459 married the merchant and Torun mayor,
Tiedeman von Allen. Through the Watzenrodes' extensive family
relationships by marriage, the future astronomer was related
both to wealthy burgher families of Kraków, Torun, Gdansk and
Elblag and to prominent noble families of Prussia: the
Dzialynski, Koscielicki and Konopacki families.
It remains a matter of dispute whether a "nationality" should be
ascribed to Nicolaus Copernicus retrospectively and, if so,
whether he should be considered German or Polish. Already in the
123-year period when no Polish state existed (see History of
Poland, 1795–1918), the matter was debated in German writings;
nevertheless, the 1875 Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie
acknowledged the Polish aspects of Copernicus's life. Current
German sources call the controversy, as reflected in the older
literature, superfluous and shameful.
Encyclopędia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, and the
Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia identify Copernicus as
Copernicus was born, grew up, and spent most of his life in
Royal Prussia and therefore was a subject of the Crown of the
Polish Kingdom. It is possible, therefore, that Copernicus'
early years were spent in a "German" environment, while his
later years were passed in a more "Polish" milieu, or to quote
the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Thus the child of a
German family was a subject of the Polish crown." However, in
his time "nationality" had yet to play as important a role as it
would later, and people generally did not think of themselves
primarily as Polish or German.
Nevertheless, some have preferred to assign a single nationality
to Copernicus. Nazi Germany claimed Copernicus to have been
purely German, while Poland has always promoted him as purely
Even today, some Germans and Poles continue to regard him as
having been exclusively one of their own. Poland has issued
coins and a banknote bearing Copernicus's portrait.
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This web page was last updated on:
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