Is Nicolaus Copernicus still mysterious? Images from the life of the astronomer on the eve of the 550th anniversary of his birth

Krzysztof Mikulski


This article is a summary of the author's research into the background, social environment and other elements of Nicolaus Copernicus' biography. The author draws attention to the genesis of the dispute over the astronomer's “nationality” and emphasises his nineteenth-century origins. The author points to the influence of the partitions of Poland on the one hand, and the rise of German nationalism on the other, as the main reasons for its emergence. He emphasises the fact of Copernicus' loyalty to the Polish king and, consequently, Copernicus' historically understood “Polishness”. The author discusses the history of the astronomer's home town - Toruń, its economic and political role in the 13–16th centuries and, in particular, the commercial confederation linking the city and its merchants with Western and Northern Europe, the lands of the Polish Kingdom, Upper Hungary (today's Slovakia) and Silesia. These links indicate the causes and directions of merchant migration that led to the appearance of the Copernicus family in Toruń. The author put forward a thesis on the Westphalian origin of the family of Nicolaus Copernicus' mother, Watzenrode. The family came from the village of Wazerath (in the 15th century Watzenrode), situated near the German-Belgian border. The Watzenrode family arrived in Toruń in the first half of the

14th century together with a wave of migrants from Westphalian towns with Soest and Dortmund at the head. Of the 8 great-grandmothers of Copernicus, 6 came from families directly descended from Westphalia, one from Ruthenia, and one from Livonia. The Watzenrode family belonged to the elite of Toruń's patricians - three of its members were local councillors and three jurors, and five of its representatives went on to study at university. There was a tradition in the family of striving to achieve high social prestige through a clerical career for its members, taken from John Abezier, and continued by the astronomer's uncle, Łukasz Watzenrode, both bishops of Warmia. The astronomer's father's family came from Silesia, not from the village of Koperniki, but from the town of Nysa. The surname “Copernicus” had a professional character, being connected with the mining or processing of copper. In Nysa the Koperniks were recorded in the bench book under the name “Kopersmed”, which was a translation of their Slavic surname into the official language of the books – German. Considered in earlier literature to be the astronomer's grandfather, John Copernicus was probably his father Andrew's cousin. However, he played a significant role in the life of the astronomer's family. It was probably thanks to Jan Nicolaus Copernicus that his father went from Nysa to Cracow for a merchant apprenticeship to Jan Sweidniczer, and later, thanks to the relationship with this merchant, he went to Prussia and settled in Toruń. Nicolaus Copernicus was not the youngest child in his family. This misconception was caused by the order in which the children of Nicolaus and Barbara Copernicus were listed in a genealogical table prepared by the Gdańsk writer Stanisław Bornbach. Earlier biographers of Copernicus considered this order to be chronological, whereas it was alphabetical. In contemporary sources Nicolaus appears twice before his brother Andrew (never in reverse order), which is sufficient evidence for the recognition of his seniority in relation to his brother. The astronomer was born in Toruń, but not in the tenement house at 15 Kopernik Street, where today there is a part of the museum devoted to him. This house belonged to the astronomer's family in the years 1458–1480, but probably already in 1468 they moved to the tenement house at 36 Rynek Staromiejski, half of which belonged to the Watzenrode family already at the end of the 14th century, and the other half was bought by the astronomer's father in 1468. Anna Schilling, hailed in literature as the “lady of the heart” of the astronomer approaching the end of his days, was most probably his cousin from Gdańsk. She was the daughter of Nicolaus Copernicus' cousin. She lived in Frombork as a widow, rather as a carer of her elderly and probably already ailing cousin. The question of Copernicus' place of rest in Frombork Cathedral is still open. The identification of his remains still raises some doubts among researchers, especially anthropologists and geneticists. Despite these reservations, the author concludes that our knowledge of Nicolaus Copernicus' background, youth and private life on the eve of his 550th birthday is much greater than it was even several decades after his death and only a few years ago.


Nicolaus Copernicus; Late Medieval Period; social history; historical anniversary

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