Moral, Rustic, and Amorous Epistles - Prelude - A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos - Dava Sobel

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos - Dava Sobel (2011)

Part I. Prelude


Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind.

Who laid the foundations of the Earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

—PSALM 104:1, 3, 5

The great merit of Copernicus, and the basis of his claim to the discovery in question, is that he was not satisfied with a mere statement of his views, but devoted a large part of the labor of a life to their demonstration, and thus placed them in such a light as to render their ultimate acceptance inevitable.

—FROM Popular Astronomy (1878),

Chapter 1. Moral, Rustic, and Amorous Epistles

The cricket is a musical being. At the break of dawn it starts to sing. But much louder and more vociferous, according to its nature, is it heard at the noon hour, because intoxicated by the Sun’s rays. As the songster chirps, then, it turns the tree into a platform and the field into a theater, performing a concert for the wayfarers.

—FROM Letters of Theophylactus Simocatta,

Nicolaus Copernicus, the man credited with turning our perception of the cosmos inside out, was born in the city of Torun, part of “Old Prussia” in the Kingdom of Poland, at 4:48 on Friday afternoon, the nineteenth of February, 1473. His horoscope for that auspicious moment (preserved in the Bavarian State Library in Munich) shows the Sun at 11° of Pisces in the sixth house, while Jupiter and the Moon are “conjunct,” or practically on top of one another, at 4° and 5°, respectively, of Sagittarius, in the third house. Whatever clues to character or destiny such data may contain, this particular natal chart is an after-the-fact construct, created at the end of the astronomer’s life and not the beginning of it (with the time of birth calculated, as opposed to copied from a birth certificate). At the time his horoscope was cast, Copernicus’s contemporaries already knew he had fathered an alternate universe—that he had defied common sense and received wisdom to place the Sun at the center of the heavens, then set the Earth in motion around it.

Nearing seventy, Copernicus had little cause to recall the exact date of his birth, let alone the hour of it down to the precision of minutes. Nor had he ever expressed the slightest faith in any astrological prognostications. His companion at the time, however, a professed devotee of the “juridical art,” apparently pressed Copernicus for biographical details to see how his stars aligned.

The horoscope’s symbols and triangular compartments position the Sun, Moon, and planets above or below the horizon, along the zodiac—the ring of constellations through which they appear to wander. The numerical notations describe more precisely where they lie at the moment, with respect to the twelve signs and also twelve so-called houses governing realms of life experience. Although the diagram invites interpretation, no accompanying conjecture has survived alongside it. One modern astrologer, invited to consider Copernicus’s case, used computer software to draw a new configuration in the shape of a wheel, and added solar-system bodies unknown in his time. Uranus and Neptune thus crept into the third house beside the Moon and Jupiter, while Pluto, a dark force, manifested itself opposite the Sun, at 16° of Virgo in the first house. The Pluto-Sun opposition drew a gasp from the astrologer, who declared it the hallmark of a born revolutionary.

The bold plan for astronomical reform that Copernicus conceived and then nurtured over decades in his spare time struck him as the blueprint for the “marvelous symmetry of the universe.” Even so, he proceeded cautiously, first leaking the idea to a few fellow mathematicians, never trying to proselytize. All the while real and bloody revolutions—the Protestant Reformation, the Peasant Rebellion, warfare with the Teutonic Knights and the Ottoman Turks—churned around him. He held off publishing his theory for so long that when his great book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, finally appeared in print, its author breathed his last. He never heard any of the criticism, or acclaim, that attended On the Revolutions. Decades after his death, when the first telescopic discoveries lent credence to his intuitions, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned his efforts. In 1616, On the Revolutions was listed on the Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained for more than two hundred years. The philosophical conflict and change in perception that his ideas engendered are sometimes referred to as the Copernican Revolution.


Astronomers and astrologers in Copernicus’s time shared the same pool of information about the positions of the heavenly bodies against the backdrop of the stars. Until the invention of the telescope in the seventeenth century, position finding and position predicting constituted the entirety of planetary science—and the basis for casting horoscopes.

He was christened for his father—Mikolaj in Polish, Niklas in German, his native tongue. Later, as a scholar, he Latinized his name, but he grew up Niklas Koppernigk, the second son and youngest child of a merchant family from the copper-mining regions of Silesia. Their ancestral village of Koperniki could have taken its name from the Slavic word for the dill plant, koper, or from the Old German term for the metal mined there, kopper—or maybe it commemorated both those products of its hillsides. In any case, the roots of Koperniki’s etymology lay long buried by the time its younger generations began leaving home to seek new fortunes in the towns and cities. An armorer named Mikolaj Kopernik appeared in the city chronicles of Krakow in 1375, followed by mention of the mason Niclos Kopernik in 1396 and the rope maker Mikolaj Kopernik in 1439, all bearing the names of their forefathers’ homeland and its popular patron saint.

Around the year 1456, the alderman Mikolaj Koppernigk, who traded in Hungarian copper, moved north from Krakow to Torun, where he married Barbara Watzenrode. They lived on narrow St. Anne’s Lane, later renamed Copernicus Street, and raised four children in a tall brick house that is now a museum to the memory of their famous son. From the double front doors under the house’s pointed arch, their two boys, Andrei and Niklas, could walk to classes at the parish school of St. John’s Church, or down to the family warehouse near the wide river, the Vistula, that coursed from Krakow past Warsaw through Torun, carrying the flow of commerce to Danzig on the Baltic Sea.

Soon after the boy Niklas reached ten years of age, the elder Niklas died. His bereft sons and daughters and his widow, Barbara Koppernigk, turned for succor to her brother, Lukasz Watzenrode, a minor cleric, or “canon,” in a nearby diocese. Or perhaps Barbara, whose date of death is not recorded, had predeceased her husband, leaving her brood true orphans. Either way, the children came under their uncle’s care. Canon Watzenrode arranged a marriage contract for his niece Katyryna with Bartel Gertner of Krakow and consigned his niece Barbara to the Cistercian convent at Kulm. His young nephews he supported at school, first in Torun and later in Kulm or Wloclawek, until they were ready to attend his alma mater, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. By then Uncle Lukasz had risen from a mediocre position in the Catholic hierarchy to become Bishop of Varmia.

A page of Gothic script in the archives of the Collegium Maius at the Jagiellonian University attests that Nicolaus Copernicus, age eighteen, paid his tuition fees in full for the fall of 1491. He studied logic, poetry, rhetoric, natural philosophy, and mathematical astronomy. According to the courses in his curriculum, his father’s copper and other common substances could not be considered elements in the modern sense of the periodic table. Rather, they comprised some combination of the four classic elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The heavens, in contrast, consisted entirely of a fifth essence, called ether, which differed from the other four by virtue of being inviolate and everlasting. Ordinary objects on Earth moved more or less along straight paths, whether seeking their natural places in the world order or being compelled by outside agents. Heavenly bodies, however, lay cocooned in celestial spheres that spun in eternal perfect circles.

The motions of the planets captured Copernicus’s interest from the start of his university studies. At college he purchased two sets of tables for calculating their positions and had these bound together, adding sixteen blank pages where he copied parts of a third table and wrote miscellaneous notes. (This custom volume and other remnants of his personal library, seized as spoils of the Thirty Years’ War, now belong to the University of Uppsala, Sweden. (Copernicus more than once explained his attraction to astronomy in terms of beauty, asking rhetorically, “What could be more beautiful than the heavens, which contain all beautiful things?” He also cited the “unbelievable pleasure of mind” he derived from contemplating “things established in the finest order and directed by divine ruling.”

“Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits upon which the natural talents of man are nourished,” he wrote, “I think the ones above all to be embraced and pursued with the most loving care concern the most beautiful and worthy objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline that deals with the godlike circular movements of the world and the course of the stars.”


As Copernicus learned in school, the world around him consisted of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Far removed from these ordinary substances, the Moon and other celestial bodies consisted of a fifth essence, immune to change or destruction. In the perfect heavens, bodies moved with uniform circular motion.

The portrait of him now hanging in Torun’s town hall cuts a youthful, handsome figure. Based on a purported self-portrait that disappeared long ago, it shows Copernicus dressed in a red jerkin, with glints painted into his dark eyes and dark hair. (The light in each brown iris reflects, on close inspection, the tall Gothic windows of the rooms he frequented.) He had a long nose, a manly shadow above his full lips, and a faint scar extending from the corner of his left eye up into the eyebrow. This mark encouraged archaeologists in 2005, who picked out his skull among the litter of remains under the church where he had lain buried. A double dent above the skull’s right eye socket—not the left one—seemed to affirm their identification, since every portraitist sees himself as his mirror’s image.

In September 1496, again at his uncle’s command, Copernicus traveled to Italy to study canon law, concerning the rights and duties of the clergy, at the University of Bologna. Only one year into this enterprise, he became a canon himself. The death of one of the sixteen Varmia canons created a vacancy, and Bishop Watzenrode used his connections to win Copernicus the office in absentia. As the fourteenth canon of the Cathedral Chapter—effectively a trustee in the rich and powerful governing body of the Varmia diocese—Copernicus could now collect an income independent of his allowance.

He lodged in Bologna with the local astronomy professor, Domenico Maria Novara, whom he assisted in nightly observations. Together they watched the Moon pass in front of the bright star Aldebaran (the eye of Taurus the Bull) on March 9, 1497, and Copernicus recorded in his notes how the star hid “between the horns of the moon at the end of the fifth hour of the night.”

At the conclusion of his law studies, he visited Rome in the summer of 1500 for the jubilee year celebrations. He and other pilgrims tripled the population of the Holy City, where a crowd of two hundred thousand knelt to receive the Easter Sunday blessing of Pope Alexander VI. Still in Rome on November 6, Copernicus observed and recorded a partial lunar eclipse. He also lectured in Rome about mathematics to students and experts alike. But his future with the Church had already been decided. July 27, 1501, found him at a meeting of the Cathedral Chapter in Varmia, along with his older brother, Andreas, who had also attained a canonry there, courtesy of Uncle Lukasz. Both young men requested leave to return to Italy for further education and received the chapter’s blessing. They set out almost immediately for Padua, where Copernicus studied medicine in preparation for a career as “healing physician” to the bishop and canons of Varmia.


The Earth-centered universe that Copernicus inherited is pictured in this frontispiece from one of his favorite books, the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest, by Regiomontanus. He and other astronomers measured the motions of the “wandering” stars—the planets, the Sun, and the Moon—through the band of “fixed” stars called the zodiac. The Sun took about one month to progress through each sign, completing the circuit from the ram, Aries, to the fishes, Pisces, in a year. Since the actual constellations vary considerably in size, astronomers arbitrarily assigned the same one twelfth of a circle, or 30°, to each zodiac sign.

In his novel Doctor Copernicus, John Banville imagines the brothers equipping themselves for their journey “with two stout staffs, good heavy jackets lined with sheepskin against the Alpine cold, a tinderbox, a compass, four pounds of sailor’s biscuit and a keg of salt pork.” This and other rich descriptions—one of which pictures “Nicolas” sewing gold coins into the lining of his cloak for safekeeping—leap the gaps in the true life story. Historians have pieced that together from his few published works and the scattered archives where he left his name. His lifetime of correspondence comes down today to just seventeen surviving signed letters. (Of these, three concern the woman who lived with him as cook and housekeeper, and probably concubine as well.)

“The inns were terrible, crawling with lice and rogues and poxed whores,” Banville continues the brothers’ travel narrative. “And then one rainy evening as they were crossing a high plateau under a sulphurous lowering sky a band of horsemen wheeled down on them, yelling. They were unlovely ruffians, tattered and lean, deserters from some distant war. … The brothers watched in silence their mule being driven off. Nicolas’s suspiciously weighty cloak was ripped asunder, and the hoard of coins spilled out.” It could all have happened, just that way.

As a medical student at the University of Padua, Copernicus learned therapeutic techniques, such as bloodletting with leeches, aimed at balancing the four bodily humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. All manifestations of health or disease stemmed from an excess or deficiency of one or more of these fluids. Even gray hair was caused by “corrupt humors” and could be postponed with the proper prescription. Copernicus also watched anatomical dissections, studied surgical procedures, and took instruction in the application of astrology to diagnosis and treatment. His textbooks, which were still with him at his death and mentioned in his will, included the 1485 edition of Breviarium practicae by Arnaldus of Villanova, a thirteenth-century physician and alchemist.

“To produce sleep so profound that the patient may be cut and will feel nothing, as though he were dead,” Arnaldus advised, “take of opium, mandragora bark, and henbane root equal parts, pound them together and mix with water. When you want to sew or cut a man, dip a rag in this and put it to his forehead and nostrils. He will soon sleep so deeply that you may do what you will. To wake him up, dip the rag in strong vinegar.”

Copernicus cut short his medical studies after two of the required three years. Having never been graduated from any of the universities he attended, he traveled to Ferrara in May of 1503, sat for the exam in canon law, and took his doctoral degree. Some Copernicus scholars think he did this to avoid the hoopla of commencement rituals in the university courtyard at Padua, “Il Bo,” not to mention the cost of the fees paid to examiners and the dinner party that a new graduate was expected to throw. From Ferrara he returned to Poland—to Varmia—for good.

The cathedral of Varmia stood, as it still stands today, on a hilltop overlooking the Vistula Bay. The great brick church rises in Gothic turrets and spires from a stone foundation laid in the fourteenth century. A few small buildings, a bell tower, and a covered well huddle around the church, surrounded in turn by high fortified walls, crowned with crenellations and arrow loops. The moat and barbican are gone, but the gateways retain the thick, grudging wooden doors and medieval grates that even now can fall with fatal weight.

The presence of the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary gave the name Frauenburg, or “the city of Our Lady,” to the adjacent community. Frauenburg (known today as Frombork), was one of several cities within the diocese of Varmia. The imposing bishop’s palace, where Doctor Copernicus first went to live and work for his uncle, lay fifty miles away, in Heilsberg (now Lidzbark Warmiński). The fifty-mile remove seems extremely inconvenient, given that it took days to travel such a distance at the pace of available transport, but Bishop Watzenrode was only occasionally required to appear at the cathedral. On January 11, 1510, for example, he arrived there leading an official procession, having carried the sacred relic said to be St. George’s head all the way from Heilsberg.

As much a prince as a prelate, the Bishop of Varmia governed a province of more than four thousand square miles (most of which belonged to him personally) with tens of thousands of inhabitants. He reported directly to the King of Poland. Indeed, Watzenrode served as trusted counselor to three successive kings over the course of his episcopate, sharing with them his dreams of Polish glory and his hatred for the white-cloaked Knights of the Teutonic Order, whose lands engulfed Varmia. Although the military-religious order had been founded in the Holy Land by Crusaders late in the twelfth century, it removed after the fall of Acre to Old Prussia, where it grew dissolute and dangerous. Often the knights thundered out of their castle at Königsberg to raid the towns of Varmia—even attacking Frauenburg and its cathedral fortress.

Bishop Watzenrode had fathered an illegitimate son in Torun, but he regarded his talented younger nephew as his heir apparent. Having nurtured Copernicus through Church ranks, he now positioned him as episcopal physician and personal secretary, poised on the brink of limitless advancement. Yet the youth seemed not nearly hungry enough. His mind strayed from the lanes of power, as suggested by the notes Copernicus kept from his years in the bishop’s employ. These describe the positions of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn during their Great Conjunction in the sign of Cancer in 1504, and the lunar eclipse that occurred on June 2, 1509.

French polymath Pierre Gassendi, who wrote the first extant biography of Copernicus in 1654, more than a century after the astronomer’s death, said he treated the illnesses of the poor without charging them any fee. While it is easy and tempting to presume the goodness of his heart, the peasants of Varmia probably had no money to pay for his services, nor he any need of their pennies. In addition to the income from his canonry, Copernicus received a second livelihood from a sinecure at the Church of the Holy Cross in Wroclaw, which he retained for thirty-five years. Also, the Cathedral Chapter of Varmia paid him an annual bonus for tending to the bishop’s medical complaints. Records show that when Bishop Watzenrode took sick in 1507, his nephew successfully restored him to health.

Copernicus made a public display of gratitude to his uncle by dedicating his first published work to him, hailing Watzenrode as “O right reverend ruler and father of our country.” The text thus offered was not the great Copernican theory but a translation, from Greek into Latin, of a collection of letters by a seventh-century moralist from Constantinople. Copernicus found the eighty-five moral, rustic, and amorous letters of Theophylactus Simocatta in the chapter library, in a volume called Epistolographers. The missives read more like fables and teachings than communiqués, but he liked them, he said, because “Theophylactus so interspersed the gay with the serious, and the playful with the austere, that every reader may pluck what pleases him most in these letters, like an assortment of flowers in a garden.”

One of the letters dealt specifically with an uncle’s duty to a nephew: “Among mares there is a rule, and it seems to me quite wise. Indeed I praise their profound kindliness. But what is this rule? If they see a foal lacks a teat and the mother is far away, any one of them nurses the foal. For they do not forget their own species and, with a single purpose and no ill will, they do their nursing as though having to do with their own true descendant. …

“Now I shall apply this discourse to you. You scorn your brother’s son as he roams from door to door, clad in most wretched rags. Your feelings are less sensible than the brutes’. You feed others’ hounds, for that is what I would quite properly call the flatterers around you. For they appear to be completely loyal as long as they are stuffed full of your food, you wretch! Yet they constantly bark at you even while they are still belching out the booze they just drank. For, flatterers constitute a breed that is mindful of harm and most forgetful of favors. Therefore … take care of your nephew at last. If you do not, you will have your conscience as your implacable foe, sharpening his sword with Nature’s tears.”

Fortunately for Copernicus, his own Uncle Lukasz had needed no such admonition to extend a generous hand.

Anxious about the reception of the erotic letters, Copernicus claimed to have cleaned them up for the bishop’s sake: “Just as physicians usually modify the bitterness of drugs by sweetening them to make them more palatable to patients,” he wrote in the dedication, “so these love letters have in like manner been rectified.” Even so, they make mention of lust, carnal desires, irrational passion, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, and infanticide.

A friend of Copernicus, Wawrzyniec Korwin (pen name Laurentius Corvinus), took the manuscript of the little book to Krakow for printing in 1509. At that date, no press had yet been established anywhere in Varmia, or even in Torun. Korwin also wrote an introductory poem for the work. His verses provided a character assessment of the bishop—“conspicuous for his piety” and “revered for his grave demeanor”—suggesting that Watzenrode may have dispensed generosity without much personal warmth. As for “the scholar who translates this work,” Korwin knew him to be engaged in loftier pursuits: “He discusses the swift course of the Moon and the alternating movements of its brother as well as the stars together with the wandering planets—the Almighty’s marvelous creation—and he knows how to seek out the hidden causes of phenomena by the aid of wonderful principles.”

Copernicus was already reconceiving the order of the heavenly spheres. In fact, the whole exercise of teaching himself Greek—and practicing his proficiency on the moral, rustic, and amorous letters of Theophylactus Simocatta—seems to have been a prerequisite for studying the works of Greek astronomers and consulting the ancient Greek/Egyptian calendar, in order to date correctly their observations from antiquity.

In mid-1510, Copernicus somehow communicated to the reigning Bishop of Varmia that he did not aspire to become the future one, for he moved out of the palace. After relocating near the cathedral in Frauenburg, he no longer accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions—not even to Krakow in February 1512 for the wedding of King Sigismund and the coronation of his new queen, the young Hungarian noblewoman Barbara Zapolya. Bishop Watzenrode doubtless rued his nephew’s absence from these festivities, especially on the return journey, when he fell ill with a fever. He stopped at Torun, hoping to recuperate there before continuing on to Heilsberg, but his condition only grew worse. He died three days later, on March 29, at sixty-four years of age.

The last of Theophylactus’s letters had touched on death and its lessons for the living. “Stroll through the tombstones,” it counseled those weighed down by their own sorrows. “You will behold man’s greatest joys as in the end they take on the lightness of dust.”