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

Part I. Prelude

Chapter 3. Leases of Abandoned Farmsteads

Stenzel the herdsman took possession of 3 parcels, from which Hans Calau ran away. Stenzel got one ox, 1 cow, 1 piglet, 2 sacks of rye seed, nothing else. And I promised to add 1 horse.

—FROM AN ENTRY BY COPERNICUS IN THE VARMIA LEDGER, APRIL 23, 1517

A long with his name and his faith, Copernicus inherited his country’s long-standing conflict with the Knights of the Teutonic Order. His father had fought them hand to hand in Danzig and Torun, while his maternal grandfather, a Torun alderman, floated loans to finance the city’s sporadic warfare with the order. As a boy, Copernicus loitered among the ruins of the knights’ citadel in the city of his birth.

The knights first arrived in Torun early in the thirteenth century, fresh from bloodying Jerusalem during the Crusades. Several Polish dukes and princes invited them in, to control unruly elements throughout the province known as Old Prussia. With free rein and a heavy hand, the knights subdued the Balto-Slavic tribes that troubled the landed gentry, and converted the pagans to Christianity. They crusaded for five decades through territory they came to regard as their own—despite the prior claims of their noble hosts.

The knights’ brutish ways chafed against the interests of the rising merchant class and town burghers. Around the year 1280, when Torun joined the German commercial cooperative called the Hanseatic League, the knights established grand new headquarters to the north, at Marienburg on the Nogat River. This sprawling castle and other Teutonic forts along the waterways—together with the port of Danzig, which they seized in 1308—made the knights the gatekeepers of the Baltic Sea. For the next hundred years they tempered their marauding with domination of the amber trade. The “Great War” they declared on Poland in 1409 went badly for them, however, because the scattered princes united against them under a strong new king. After this defeat, the knights’ strength gradually diminished.

In 1454, around the time the elder Niklas Koppernigk moved to Torun, the residents of the city rose up against the order. The first clash of this “Thirteen Years’ War” destroyed the knights’ founding fortress. The final coup, delivered with the 1466 Treaty of Torun, deprived them of the western half of their realm in Old Prussia. Torun henceforth belonged to “Royal Prussia,” officially annexed to the Kingdom of Poland. King Kazimierz IV occupied the knights’ Marienburg castle for a time, but soon removed to the traditional royal seat at Wawel Castle in his native Krakow.

The knights retreated to the east, where they continued to rage against their Polish neighbors. Varmia particularly galled them. Even its geography provoked insult—the way this little bubble of Royal Prussia intruded into eastern Prussia by a narrow neck, then swelled within those borders. Bishop Watzenrode had warded off the order’s aggression throughout the twenty years of his heyday. But Bishop Luzjanski lacked Watzenrode’s power to command, and proved a poor match for young Albrecht von Hohenzollern, thirty-seventh Grand Master of the Knights of the Teutonic Order.

Albrecht was only twenty years old when the knights chose him as their leader in 1511. He had been bred for a Church career and already held a canonry at the Cathedral of Cologne. In addition to his Catholic devotion, his parentage appealed mightily to the order’s liking: Albrecht’s father—the German prince Friedrich I, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach—ruled a choice piece of the Holy Roman Empire; his mother, Princess Sofia of Poland, was King Sigismund’s sister. Albrecht embodied the knights’ every best hope of regaining their former luster, their former territory, and sovereignty over Prussia. True to that vision, Albrecht grew into his role with a vengeance, courting allies in Germany and Moscow as he braced for more war with Poland.

In mid-July of 1516, in Elbing, a town near Frauenburg, the Teutonic Knights robbed a citizen and maimed his hands. The Varmia Chapter sent a posse to give chase across the border into the knights’ part of Prussia, where their guards caught one of the culprits and took him into custody. But Grand Master Albrecht demanded his subject’s return. Then he retaliated with further attacks across Varmia. On July 22, Tiedemann Giese, who had succeeded Copernicus as chancellor, wrote up the canons’ concerns in a desperate appeal to King Sigismund, beseeching him for the protection he had promised.

The uneasy standoff with the knights still prevailed the following November, when the Varmia Chapter elected Canon Copernicus to administer its vast landholdings in the south. This post, which rotated among the sixteen canons, separated the current officer from the rest of the chapter by many miles and saddled him with new responsibilities.

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Albrecht of Prussia, Grand Master of the Knights of the Teutonic Order.

Time and custom had divided the diocese of Varmia and its ninety thousand inhabitants into nine districts. The bishop personally owned six of these, including Heilsberg, where his palace stood. The other three belonged communally to the chapter: Frauenburg on the northern coast, the official seat and site of the cathedral; Melsack, its contiguous neighbor; and Allenstein at the southern extreme. Between them, Melsack and Allenstein contained 150,000 acres of fertile fields and pastures that fed the Varmia canons and generated their comfortable annual incomes. Keeping the land productive meant keeping it tenanted by peasants who shouldered all the hard labor of farm work—a personnel problem that would preoccupy Copernicus throughout his three-year term of office as administrator.

Immediately upon his election, he left his curia in Frauenburg for the chapter’s southern headquarters. He had lived in one lost fortress of the Teutonic Knights when he served his uncle at Heilsberg, and now he moved into another: Allenstein Castle on the meanders of the Lyna River. He assumed his new post on St. Martin’s Day, November 11, 1516, which, according to the Church calendar, marked the first day of the new ecclesiastical year 1517.

The picture of Copernicus that normally comes to mind—the solitary figure, cloistered with his books in a monkish study carrel, or ascending some parapet to implore the night sky—all but falls apart at Allenstein. His time there plunged him among the people as a sympathetic party to all their mundane concerns.

The peasants under his charge lived in huts, in poverty, and in dread of the knights who raided their villages. They paid the chapter a fee of one Prussian mark per year, per parcel of land, for the privilege of plowing, sowing, and harvesting—though the Church also claimed the bulk of their harvest as revenue. In a sense a peasant owned his land, because he could trade it to someone else, or pass it down to his children. But in fact the chapter lorded over everything, and kept track of all exchanges of parcels by recording their locations in official ledgers. On a clean page in one of these books, the new administrator wrote, “Leasing of Farmsteads by me, Nicholas Coppernic, A.D. 1517.”

Duty called him first to Jonikendorf, where he approved Merten Caseler’s takeover of three parcels of vacant land. The former tenant, Joachim, had been hanged for thievery. On account of his crimes, or his punishment, Joachim had failed to sow his fields, and so Copernicus waived Merten Caseler’s rent for the whole year. He also noted the several assets that accompanied the three parcels: “He got 1 cow, 1 heifer, an ax and a sickle and, as for grains, a sack of oats and barley for the sowing omitted by his predecessor.” Copernicus datelined his description of this business “weekday 4”—meaning Wednesday—“10 December 1516.” After that he wrote, “In addition, I promised him 2 horses.”

Copernicus traveled on horseback among the region’s 120 villages, often accompanied by his servant, Wojciech Szebulski, or his errand boy, Hieronim, both of whom he named in the ledger as frequent witnesses. He alone, however, decided every case, and his word spoke for the whole chapter.

“Bartolt Faber of Schonewalt took possession of 1½ parcels, sold by Peter Preus, who is very old. As regards these parcels, Bartolt will give the overlord ½ mark as rent for the half-parcel. But as regards the other parcel, the Chapter graciously donated 1 mark to the aforesaid Peter for life.” In other words, Copernicus allowed Bartolt Faber to rob the chapter (the overlord) to pay the aged Peter Preus an annuity through his declining years. “After his death the entire rent will revert to the overlord. Done on the second weekday after Laetare [March 23], 1517, in the presence of Wojciech, my servant, and Hieronim, etc.”

Similarly, when Alde Urban, “who is aged in fact and in name”—and who had “no sons”—felt compelled to cede one of his parcels, Copernicus granted him exemption from payments on the rest of his holdings. Jan of Vindica, on the other hand, received no such exemption when he took possession of four parcels. Apparently Copernicus judged Jan well provided for by an uncle on his mother’s side, Czepan Copetz, who had worked that land to his dying day and left upon it “4 horses, 1 colt, 4 cows, 6 pigs, 1 leg of pork, 1 sack of rye, 1 sack of flour, ½ sack of peas, 4 sacks of barley, 5 sacks of oats, 1 large kettle, 1 wagon, iron plowshares, 1 ax, 1 scythe.”

In Voytsdorf, Copernicus encountered another family with a good uncle likely to stir his memories of the old bishop: “Gregor Knobel adds to his 2 parcels 1 more parcel that belonged to Peter Glande, who died in a fire. Gregor is the guardian of his brother Peter’s sons, who are minors, and promises to satisfy them when they are grown up.”

Copernicus’s own grown brother now wandered alone somewhere in Italy, a leper, shunned by everyone, as the nerves in his skin slowly disintegrated. The last communication from Andreas, by proxy the previous February, acknowledged that he had received his share of Uncle Lukasz’s estate. More than likely, those funds would see him through to the end.

“Hans Clauke has 2 parcels for which he was bound by hereditary payments to the church in Berting. As a man incapacitated for a long time, he sold those parcels to Simon Stoke with my permission. Done on 4 May.”

If Copernicus lent his medical skills to any of the sick or elderly peasants, he did not note such treatments in the ledger. Death—whether by hanging, by fire, by illness or old age—caused the usual degree of attrition in the population. Desertion also took its toll.

“Jacob Wayner, who with his wife ran away last year, has now been brought back by the overseer,” Copernicus wrote on August 2, 1517. The peasants’ hard lot caused many of them to flee in search of a better life. More than one quarter of the cases Copernicus recorded made reference to land made vacant because Simon—or Martzyn or Cosman—had run away. The village overseer typically pursued these fugitives on behalf of the chapter and returned them to work, lest the land lie fallow or, worse, revert to its wooded state, in which case new cultivators would have to be bribed to clear and resow.

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Copernicus holds a lily of the valley, an early Renaissance symbol of a medical doctor (probably because of the flower’s association with the god Mercury, whose snake-entwined caduceus promoted healing), in this wood-block portrait by Tobias Stimmer.

“Jacob took possession of one parcel,” Copernicus’s account continues, “from which death removed Caspar Casche. The building is in ruins, and the parcel is of little value, and for that reason was abandoned by Caspar’s heirs and guardians. When Jacob took possession, I gave him one horse, a quarter of the previously planted millet, and exemption from the next annual payment.” Copernicus also named Michael Wayner, brother of the runaway, as “his guarantor in perpetuity”—to guarantee that Jacob would never again run away.

“Gregor Noske took possession of 1½ parcels, from which Matz Leze ran away because he was suspected of thievery.”

Land changed hands among the peasants in every month of the year—from “the antepenultimate of January” and “the Sabbath before Palm” to “the day of Peter and Paul,” “the feast of Michael,” “St. Cecilia’s,” and “the day of the 11,000 Virgins.”

As he alternated between saintly and standard designations for dates in his record keeping, Copernicus kept up his lone struggle to define the true duration of the year. His invited remarks to the Lateran Council about the problematic Julian calendar had probably lamented astronomers’ ignorance of the year’s exact length. With or without calendar reform, Copernicus still needed to ascertain this fundamental parameter. The length of the year defined the Earth’s orbit around the Sun—or, as other astronomers believed, the Sun’s orbit around the Earth—and pertained to almost every calculation in the heliocentric or any other planetary theory.

“Petrus, a herdsman in Thomasdorf, took possession of 2 parcels, which are vacant because Hans ran away.”

Copernicus fashioned a new yardstick for the year in an open loge on the south face of Allenstein Castle, just outside his private apartment. Laying white stucco over the ruddy bricks, he painted the grid of a sundial onto the smoothed surface. The lines and numbers must have been blue and red when new, though only a hint of color survives in the faded dial fragment still clinging to the castle wall. Underneath, either on a table or the floor, he set a mirror—or maybe he used a bowl of red wine—to catch the Sun’s reflection and throw it up to the dial, where he charted the changing solar altitude through the seasons.

“Jacob of Jomendorf took possession of 2 parcels, which were sold to him with my permission by Marcus Kycol, who is very old.”

The Sun reaches its highest point at the summer solstice, which occurs on the longest day of the year, and a year may be gauged by the lapse of time between one summer solstice and the next. Or one could measure the time passing between one year’s vernal equinox—when the Sun crosses the Equator at the start of spring, dividing the day into equal halves of dark and light—and the vernal equinox that follows. The equinox proved easier than the solstice for Copernicus to capture, because the Sun’s position changes more dramatically day to day during the run-up to equal day and night than it does near the longest day of the year. Still, determining the exact moment of the equinox challenges even the most diligent observer. In some years, the moment defies observation altogether if it occurs during the night or twilight hours of the given day.

Copernicus worked around the natural obstacles by making a series of noon observations over a period of several days before and after the anticipated event, and then interpolating the time. His calculation gave him the year’s duration down to minutes and seconds in an age when no clock could shave moments so closely. He repeated the process annually, pooling his figures to improve their accuracy. He also factored in a few results from Ptolemy, to further increase his baseline, and he adopted Ptolemy’s technique of reckoning dates by the reigns of ancient rulers. Thus Copernicus recalled observing an autumnal equinox at Frauenburg “in the year of Our Lord 1515 on the 18th day before the Kalends of October, but according to the Egyptian calendar it was the 1840th year after the death of Alexander on the 6th day of the month of Phaophi, half an hour after sunrise.” Despite its awkward phraseology, the Egyptian calendar appealed to Copernicus’s contemporaries because of its consistency: The list of kings stretched all the way back to the eighth century B.C., and every year consisted of twelve identical months, thirty days each, plus an extra five days tacked on at the end—with no leap years. A sixteenth-century date converted to Egyptian style allowed easy computation of the time elapsed since any similar observation by Ptolemy.

“Jacob has 2 parcels and sold them with my permission to Lorenz, the overseer’s brother.”

The coins the peasants put down on their transactions were a mishmash of old and new currencies, both Prussian and Polish. The Teutonic Knights had been minting Prussian marks in the region since the thirteenth century, but at the start of the Thirteen Years’ War in 1454, King Kazimierz extended minting privileges to the cities of Torun, Elbing, and Danzig. The burghers then turned out their own Prussian coins at an enthusiastic rate, in the familiar denominations: marks, skoters, groats, and pence. In the absence of anything resembling national standards or official exchange rates, however, the intrinsic value of a mark—the volume of silver it contained—varied from mint to mint. Even the same mint might shift the balance of silver to copper in its specie on a whim. Thanks to a suspiciously diminishing proportion of silver in successive issues, a new mark weighed less than an old one, while pretending to equal the old value. Copernicus proved the weight difference by comparing coins in a balance pan. He knew that canny citizens were taking advantage of the discrepancy by spending the new coins and hoarding the old ones, which they would take to the goldsmith to be melted down for the greater worth of their metal content. Other abuses, such as nipping off bits of coins’ edges, also contributed to the currency’s debasement. Sometimes the pennies the peasants paid toward their rent, despite a full quotient of the proper alloy, had been pinched and handled through such long use as to be worn thin.

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Martin Luther, “the great Reformer,” as depicted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Aware of all these ills, Copernicus spent part of his first summer in Allenstein penning a private reflection on his fears for the state of the currency. He completed the Meditata—his Latin meditation on the money problem—on August 15, 1517, and then circulated it among a few chosen associates, much as he had done with the Brief Sketch.

At the same time as Copernicus listed these financial concerns, the priest and theology professor Martin Luther in Wittenberg also drew up a list. Luther’s list enumerated his many complaints against the Catholic Church, contesting its sale of indulgences as tickets to salvation. “When the money clinks in the box,” Luther had heard some mercenary clerics claim, “the soul springs up to Heaven.” Like Copernicus, Luther directed his so-called 95 Theses to a small, select group of acquaintances. But while Copernicus’s money advice drew a polite response that hardly distracted him from his duties, Luther’s outrage lit a fire that soon filled the public squares.

“Voytek, who has 2 parcels in the same place, took possession of two additional parcels, which have been abandoned for a long time on account of the flight long ago of Stenzel Rase. Voytek will pay the next annual rental.”

“Lurenz, having bought the tavern in Branswalt, with my consent sold 4 parcels.”

In November of 1518, word reached Copernicus that the sickly Andreas had succumbed at last to the final stages of leprosy and left this world. As he mourned the death of his brother, his friend Tiedemann Giese lost his two sisters to an outbreak of plague in Poland.

“Stenzel Zupky took possession of 2 parcels, which Matz Slander with my permission sold to him for 33 marks.”

Some of the local civic authorities who read Copernicus’s currency essay deemed it worth discussing at a regional assembly. Copernicus agreed to translate the text, for the benefit of representatives from Danzig, into German (still the official language in that city, despite its fealty to the Polish king). He finished the revised version by the end of 1519, when his term as administrator ended, and looked forward to seeing his suggestions implemented for the standardization of coins and the improvement of minting practices. Within weeks of his return to Frauenburg, however, the long-threatened war with the Teutonic Order broke out. On December 31, Albrecht invaded Braunsberg, the largest town in Varmia. Copernicus rode the six miles from Frauenburg to try to reason with Albrecht, but after two days of effort as the bishop’s emissary, January 4 and 5, all he won from the grand master was a promise of safe conduct through the region should he wish to resume negotiations in the future. He went home in defeat.

A fortnight later, on January 23, 1520, Albrecht’s knights attacked Frauenburg. They sacked and burned it. Only the walled cathedral complex, protected by a phalanx of Polish soldiers, escaped destruction. Copernicus’s curia outside the walls was reduced to rubble and ash. His pavimentum, too, lay in ruins.