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

Part I. Prelude

Chapter 6. The Bread Tariff

From one sack of either grain, wheat or rye, cleansed of any grass or weeds before grinding in order that the bread may come out cleaner and purer … a careful weighing shows that at least 66 pounds of bread are produced, not counting the weight of the baskets.

—FROM COPERNICUS’S Bread Tariff, CA. 1531

Having banished the Lutherans from Varmia, Bishop Ferber set about putting his own house in order. How shameful, he complained in February of 1531, that in the entire chapter there was barely one priest entitled to celebrate Mass. A general lack of Holy Orders had long characterized the canons at Frauenburg, but now the bishop, who was himself ordained, implored them all to receive their orders—the special grace, imparted by the laying on of hands, that empowered them to administer the sacraments—before Easter. He peered into the private corners of the canons’ lives and did not hesitate to censure the slightest infraction. The fifty miles separating the bishop from his subordinates apparently posed no impediment to his learning of their lapses, as when he found out how Canon Copernicus’s former housekeeper, though long since discharged, had recently returned to Frauenburg and spent the night with him.

The bishop discreetly took pen in his own hand on this occasion, circumventing his personal secretary. As he recalled—or more likely was reminded by an informant—the housekeeper had married hurriedly after being let go, as though to cover an inconvenient pregnancy, but later separated from her husband. The bishop understood such things. He, too, had been in love as a youth, until his intended jilted him. He fought hard to defend his claim to her hand, producing articles of her clothing as proof of their intimacy, filing suit against her family in the papal court, and traveling to Rome to plead the case himself. When his beloved ultimately wed another man, Maurycy Ferber entered the priesthood.

Now Bishop Ferber called Copernicus to account for his assignation. With the Mother Church under Lutheran attack, no breach of decorum could be borne.

“My noble lord,” Copernicus replied on July 27, 1531, “Most Reverend Father in Christ, my gracious and most honorable lord:

“With due expression of respect and deference, I have received your letter. Again you have deigned to write to me with your own hand, conveying an admonition at the outset. In this regard I most humbly ask your Most Reverend Lordship not to overlook the fact that the woman about whom you write to me was given in marriage through no plan or action of mine. But this is what happened. Considering that she had once been my faithful servant, with all my energy and zeal I endeavored to persuade them to remain with each other as respectable spouses. I would venture to call on God as my witness in this matter, and they would both admit it if they were interrogated. But she complained that her husband was impotent, a condition which he acknowledged in court as well as outside. Hence my efforts were in vain. For they argued the case before his Lordship the Dean, your Very Reverend Lordship’s nephew, of blessed memory, and then before the Venerable Lord Custodian [Tiedemann Giese]. Hence I cannot say whether their separation came about through him or her or both by mutual consent.

“However, with reference to the matter, I will admit to your Lordship that when she was recently passing through here from the Königsberg fair with the woman from Elbing who employs her, she remained in my house until the next day. But since I realize the bad opinion of me arising therefrom, I shall so order my affairs that nobody will have any proper pretext to suspect evil of me hereafter, especially on account of your Most Reverend Lordship’s admonition and exhortation. I want to obey you gladly in all matters, and I should obey you, out of a desire that my services may always be acceptable.”

Copernicus’s official services at this date made him a guardian of the chapter’s counting table. He and Giese, the other guardian, worked side by side collecting installment payments from wealthy individuals who had bought land or commercial operations from the diocese. They also managed the chapter’s endowment funds and invested its money in various capital ventures, including the construction of a tavern and inn in Frauenburg. The guardians made new purchases—of properties and sometimes supplies as well, such as “cannon, handguns, lead, and powder for the defense of the Cathedral”—and they paid the salary for the cathedral’s preacher.

Probably in the line of his duties as guardian in 1531, Copernicus created his undated Bread Tariff. This handwritten document aimed to fix the price of a peasant’s daily loaf at an affordable one penny—while simultaneously protecting the interests of the chapter-operated bakery. He advised adjusting the weight of a penny loaf according to the price of grain. Approaching the problem with his typical thoroughness, he calculated a sliding scale to cover a wide range of foreseeable market fluctuations. When harvests were plentiful and grain sold for a pittance, say nine shillings (fifty-four pence) a sack, the peasants would share the bounty, because their penny loaves would weigh in excess of one pound apiece. In lean years, however, should grain prices skyrocket as high as sixty-six shillings per sack, then Copernicus prescribed a loaf of bread had necessarily to shrink to one sixth of a pound. The chapter could recoup its other costs of production—baker’s wages, yeast—from the separate sale of bran and chaff.

While guardian, Copernicus made frequent trips to Heilsberg in his capacity as chapter physician, for Bishop Ferber was not a well man. Doctor Copernicus consulted several times with the king’s physicians about his treatment. The bishop, partially disabled by an illness years earlier, seemed unable to regain his strength. He perforce sent proxies to meetings where his presence was required. By 1532, age sixty-one, he faced his failing health by naming a coadjutor to aid and eventually succeed him. Not surprisingly, he chose Giese. But King Sigismund interceded and gave the post instead to a career diplomat named Johannes von Höfens, often called Johannes Flaxbinder because his ancestors worked as rope makers, and who signed his poems and letters Johannes Dantiscus, in homage to Danzig, his birthplace.

Dantiscus had spent years angling for a lucrative Varmia canonry. The king first nominated him in 1514, to be Andreas’s coadjutor, but the papal court endorsed someone else. The sudden decease of another canon in 1515 again enabled the king to name Dantiscus as a replacement, but this time both the chapter and the pope opposed him. Still the king continued to favor Dantiscus, not forgetting the long love poem he had written three years earlier—the epithalamion for the royal wedding of Sigismund and Barbara. (By 1515, the young queen already lay in her grave, only twenty years old when she died giving birth to her second daughter.)

Dantiscus made his next attempt at a canonry in 1528, while representing Poland at the Spanish court—shortly after he successfully negotiated for Sigismund’s new queen, Bona Sforza, the title she desired as Duchess of Bari. Dantiscus’s third bid actually won the chapter’s support, but failed again in Rome. Finally, on his fourth try, in 1529, Dantiscus got his wish. And then, the very next year, as though to reward his persistence, the king chose Canon Dantiscus to be Bishop of Kulm. The nearby diocese of Kulm was home to the Cistercian convent where Copernicus’s sister Barbara had become a nun. Although Kulm could not compare with Varmia in political power or wealth, Dantiscus gladly anticipated putting on the miter. He remained in Spain the next two years, however, to complete his government mission there and also to see to the business of receiving Holy Orders, in order to become a priest prior to ascending to the bishopric.


Johannes Dantiscus, Bishop of Varmia.

Returning to Poland in 1532 as Bishop-designate of Kulm, he made a strong candidate for coadjutor to the ailing Bishop Ferber. While he awaited the outcome of that contest, he invited two of his fellow Varmia canons—Copernicus and Felix Reich, but not Giese—to attend his long-overdue investiture ceremony in Löbau on Sunday, April 20, 1533. Both the invited canons begged off.

“Your Lordship, Most Reverend Father in Christ,” Copernicus wrote, “I have received your Most Reverend Lordship’s letter, from which I quite understand your kindliness, graciousness, and good will toward me. … This is surely attributable, not to my services but rather, in my opinion, to your Most Reverend Lordship’s well known generosity. Would that I might some day chance to be so deserving! I am of course more delighted than it is in my power to say that I have found such a patron and protector.

“Your Most Reverend Lordship, however, requests that I join you on the 20th of this month. Although I would do so with the greatest pleasure, since I have no insignificant reason for attending so eminent a friend and patron, yet the misfortune has befallen me that at that very time Canon Felix and I are required by certain business and by compelling reasons to remain at our stations. I therefore ask your Most Reverend Lordship to excuse my absence at that time. At any other time I am unreservedly ready, as I should be, to call on your Most Reverend Lordship and do whatever pleases you, to whom I am indebted in very many other ways, provided that your Most Reverend Lordship so indicates to me at some other time. I acknowledge that hereafter I should not so much satisfy your requests as execute your commands.”

Yet he continued to avoid contact. Two years later, in a letter declining an invitation from Dantiscus to a family wedding, Copernicus apologized for still not having called at Löbau. Now he regretted that some new ineluctable duty in Varmia would keep him from the nuptials. “Therefore deign to excuse my personal absence and preserve your old attitude toward me, even though I shall not be present. For, a meeting of the minds usually counts for even more than a meeting of the bodies.”

Copernicus could not distance himself indefinitely from Dantiscus, however. On July 1, 1537, Bishop Ferber died of a stroke while Doctor Nicolaus was rushing to his bedside. Soon after, as had been predetermined, the canons elected Dantiscus the Bishop of Varmia. As for the newly vacant bishop’s seat in Kulm, that was to be filled by Tiedemann Giese. He would need to move to the much poorer diocese of Kulm, southwest of Varmia, away from Copernicus and his other accustomed associates, though still retaining his position as their fellow canon.

Whatever resentment Dantiscus had stored up during the years of snubbing by the Varmia canons now erupted in a show of vindictive behavior. He began with Giese. The coadjutor contest with that man had been a little too close, and Dantiscus determined to deny Giese the possibility of becoming Bishop of Varmia—ever—even in the event of Dantiscus’s death. Although Giese, five years older than Dantiscus, seemed unlikely to outlive him, still Dantiscus sought to squelch any chance. To that end, he demanded that Giese, as Bishop of Kulm, give up his canonry in Varmia. And he pressured Copernicus to push Giese’s resignation through the chapter’s official channels.

“With regard to that matter of the canonries, which your Most Reverend Lordship entrusted to me,” Copernicus wrote from Frauenburg on Easter Sunday 1538 to Dantiscus in Heilsberg, “I have received the plan and shared it with the Most Reverend Bishop of Kulm.” But, Copernicus regretted, the matter could not be referred to the chapter at this moment, since other more pressing cases had to be heard first. “When that is done, there will be a better opportunity to bring up the proposal, unless another plan is conceived in the meantime by your Most Reverend Lordship, to whom I wish my services to be acceptable.”

A surprisingly rich cache of correspondence from this period documents the intrigues that enveloped the cathedral. One letter, from Queen Bona, congratulated Dantiscus on his rise to the bishopric of Varmia and reminded him of his new duty to provide good German horses, “even from his own stable,” to her son, Prince Sigismund Augustus. Queen Bona further urged Dantiscus to relinquish his canonry in Varmia, on the grounds that “it is unbecoming to be the bishop and a canon in one and the same church.” Whether any previous bishop had ever made such a concession before, Dantiscus had little to lose by acquiescing on this score. As bishop, his landholdings and income dwarfed the annual receipts from his canonry. He readily let it go—not to Bona’s handpicked worthy (a second cousin of Copernicus), but to his own protégé Stanislaw Hozjusz. This move gave Dantiscus a new ally in the chapter. It also allowed him to wield Bona’s concerns about being bishop and canon in the same church as a weapon against Giese. In point of fact, Giese was bishop of one church (Kulm) and canon of a different one (Varmia), but Dantiscus waved aside that detail.

While Copernicus stalled to protect Giese, Dantiscus shifted his focus to the issue of the canons’ female housekeepers. Unless these were relatives, the bishop proclaimed, they must be dismissed. Copernicus’s present cook, Anna Schilling, a married woman separated from her legal husband, may have been the same individual who had aroused the late Bishop Ferber’s outrage.

“My lord, Most Reverend Father in Christ, most gracious lord, to be heeded by me in everything,” Copernicus opened his reply to Dantiscus on December 2, 1538, “I acknowledge your Most Reverend Lordship’s quite fatherly, and more than fatherly admonition, which I have felt even in my innermost being. I have not in the least forgotten the earlier one, which your Most Reverend Lordship delivered in person and in general. Although I wanted to do what you advised, nevertheless it was not easy to find a proper female relative forthwith, and therefore I intended to terminate this matter by the time of the Easter holidays. Now, however, lest your Most Reverend Lordship suppose that I am looking for an excuse to procrastinate, I have shortened the period to a month, that is, to the Christmas holidays, since it could not be shorter, as your Most Reverend Lordship may realize. For as far as I can, I want to avoid offending all good people, and still less your Most Reverend Lordship. To you, who have deserved my reverence, respect, and affection in the highest degree, I devote myself with all my faculties.”

In a Greek flourish at the end of this letter, instead of identifying his locale as “Frauenburg,” in the usual way, Copernicus wrote “Gynopolis.” One could argue that “Gynopolis” matched the literal meaning of the place name. But, given the context of the discussion, Copernicus seems mischievously to suggest that “the city of Our Lady” has gained new significance for its less exalted women—the female housekeepers.

“I have now done what I should not or could not in any way have failed to do,” he capitulated in early January 1539. “I hope that what I have done in this matter quite accords with your Most Reverend Lordship’s warnings.” She had gone. Her leaving, however, did not satisfy Dantiscus’s urge to punish Copernicus and two other canons who had flouted him in the matter of the housekeepers. The bishop now entered into clandestine communication with Canon Felix Reich, who had no compunctions about ratting on his brethren—even as Copernicus was treating him for a bleeding ulcer. In exchange for inside information, Bishop Dantiscus volunteered to procure whatever Reich requested against his painful condition, including light beer in wholesome daily doses and unlimited quantities of Hungarian wine to strengthen his heart.

Reich’s years as a notary had made him an expert on legal protocol. Now he instructed Bishop Dantiscus to send sealed writs addressed individually to the three scandalous canons. Separate writs for the women should be sent to the local priest, who would issue the warnings to them.

“Care should also be taken to omit from the letters to the other two, who do not have legal husbands,” Reich stipulated, “what is in that earlier letter concerning Nicolaus’s cook, who does have a legal husband. The impending commencement of the proceeding against the women too will strike terror to no small degree.

“Whatever the situation may be, may Your Most Reverend Lordship act firmly. God Almighty will strengthen your arm so that you may conduct to a happy ending what you initiated out of zeal. As much as we can, all of us will help make a success of this affair. However, your Most Reverend Lordship must take care nevertheless in commencing the proceeding with the force of law not to introduce in your future letters anything contrary to formal and customary legal style, as it is called. For it often happens that even the tiniest clause may spoil an entire case, so that it is declared null and void if it comes before a higher judge.”

Dantiscus’s own dalliance in Spain had produced at least one illegitimate daughter and a son who died in infancy, but this did not deter him from prosecuting the canons and their concubines. He tried to proceed as Reich suggested, but could not keep the paperwork free of errors.

“I am sending back all the letters because in one a serious scribal error must be corrected, and that cannot be done here,” Reich complained on January 23. The bishop’s scribe had addressed one of the letters to Heinrich Scultetus, when in truth that canon’s first name was Alexander—the acknowledged father of several children with his live-in maidservant.

“Moreover, in my previous letter I warned about the banishment of ‘ten miles’ and ‘outside the diocese,’ since your Most Reverend Lordship does not have the power to banish anyone beyond your own diocese, which in certain places (as here in Frauenburg) does not extend farther than one mile. Consequently it would be necessary to delete this reference to ten miles as the distance to which the women are relegated.” Once the bishop had seen to these and miscellaneous other corrections, Reich advised, he should return the documents with caution:

“The letters to the canons should be tied up separately, and the letters to the cooks in like manner, and these sealed in one envelope and addressed to the priest. Otherwise a great mishap could occur. For if open letters to the cooks fell into the hands of those three canons, I have no doubt that, being intercepted, the letters could not accomplish their purpose. Your Most Reverend Lordship will therefore instruct your courier on his return to deliver to the priest the documents pertaining to the women first, ahead of everything, and afterwards the documents concerning the canons to any canon. The latter will undoubtedly give each one his own and, if need be, accost each one most circumspectly. Otherwise he will heap no small suspicion on me.

“I suppose your Most Reverend Lordship has a sound reason for writing very briefly to Nicolaus, and it does not matter a great deal. Undoubtedly they all coordinate everything with one another.”

Before the bishop could act or reply, Reich wrote again on January 27 to thank Dantiscus for a new delivery of wine and beer, and also to forestall another faux pas.

“Together with the wine from Allenstein, through the effort of the venerable Administrator there, your letter to the Chapter was also delivered to me. I am afraid, however, that it may contain something about the proceedings against the canons’ cooks and against the canons themselves. I do not dare deliver the letter to the Chapter lest its members cause a disturbance in this affair. … I beg you not to be angry because without any instructions I withheld the letter in accordance with my own judgment.”

Reich’s meddling soon ended with the aggravation of his illnesses, which led to his death on March 1. The chapter buried him the following day. On March 3, Copernicus claimed Reich’s vacant canonry for his relative, Raphael Konopacki, previously nominated by Queen Bona. In April the young man’s father—George Konopacki, the governor of Pomerania—wrote to Dantiscus to smooth Raphael’s way into the cathedral community: “I most humbly beseech your Most Reverend Paternity (for I have understood that you always support my affairs and those of my son with special kindness, and we look upon you as the anchor of our hope) to deign to assist him with the same utmost kindness and good-will and help.”

Right at the same time that Raphael came to Frauenburg to assume his canonry, in May of 1539, another youth—a brilliant mathematician—also entered the city in search of Canon Copernicus. No one had invited him or even suspected his arrival. Had he sent advance notice of his intent to visit, he doubtless would have been advised to stay far away from Varmia. Bishop Dantiscus’s most recent antiheresy pronouncement, issued in March, reiterated the exclusion of all Lutherans from the province—and twenty-five-year-old Georg Joachim Rheticus was not only Lutheran but a professor at Luther’s own university in Wittenberg. He had lectured there about a new direction for the ancient art of astrology, which he hoped to establish as a respected science. Ruing mundane abuses of astrology such as selecting a good time for a business transaction, Rheticus believed the stars spoke only of the gravest matters: A horoscope signaled an individual’s place in the world and his ultimate fate, not the minutiae of his daily life. If properly understood, heavenly signs would predict the emergence of religious prophets and the rise or fall of secular empires.

Rheticus had left Wittenberg the previous autumn, in October 1538, amidst squabbles over some vulgar verses written by a friend of his to mock Martin Luther. On leave from his teaching duties, he had spent months traveling around Germany, intent on seeking out the best practitioners to enlighten his understanding of astronomy and its astrological applications. In Nuremberg, he learned for the first time of the Polish canon who accounted for the celestial motions by centering them on the Sun. This concept seemed to Rheticus a redemptive cosmology, and without delay he undertook the five-hundred-mile journey to northern Prussia to learn the details of the theory from its source.

The name Rheticus, like that of Dantiscus, derived from a place instead of a person. Rheticus would have used his real surname if allowed to, but his family had been stripped of that privilege after his father, the physician Georg Iserin of Feldkirch, was beheaded for his crimes in 1528. Some accusers branded Iserin a sorcerer; others called him a thief who had come into their homes to give medical care but left with their valuables. Rheticus, fourteen at his father’s execution, first took his mother’s maiden name, de Porris, but later changed it to the more German-sounding von Lauchen, which meant the same thing: “of the leeks.” At the start of his university studies at Wittenberg in 1532, he acquired the toponym that tied him to his Alpine homeland of Rhaetia.

Rheticus had begun school with an interest in medicine but displayed an uncanny aptitude for numbers. He quickly came under the wing of the renowned humanist scholar Philip Melanchthon, “the teacher of Germany” and also Luther’s trusted supervisor of university affairs. As Rheticus later reported, the fatherly Melanchthon pushed him toward the field of mathematics—to the study of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. In 1536, rather than lose Rheticus after conferring on him the master of arts degree, Melanchthon established a second mathematics professorship especially for him to fill. Rheticus, now twenty-two, marked his transformation from student to faculty member at Wittenberg with a public inaugural address. Feeling awkward at the center of such attention, he warned his audience that he was “shy by nature,” and most dearly cherished “those arts that love hiding-places, and do not earn applause among the crowds.” Nevertheless he acquitted himself admirably in his oration. “It is characteristic of the honorable mind,” he said, “to love nothing more ardently than truth, and, inspired by this desire, to seek a genuine science of universal nature, of religions, of the movements and effects of the heavens, of the causes of change, not only of animated bodies, but also of cities and realms, of the origins of noble duties and of other such things.” Mathematics, he avowed, united all these pursuits.


The dire prospects suggested in this horoscope for Georg Joachim Rheticus caused his student Nicholas Gugler, who drew the chart, to recalculate the professor’s birth time and date. The true date of February 16, written in the margin, disagrees with the more favorable date in the diagram, February 15.

In addition to their mutual regard, Rheticus and Melanchthon shared a devotion to astrology that did not include the dubious Luther. “Astrology is framed by the devil,” scoffed Luther at table one day, “for the star-peepers presage nothing that is good out of the planets.” As espoused by Melanchthon, however, astrology contained no taint of devil or magic. Its tenets were upheld by the text of Genesis, which told how God placed “lights in the firmament of the heaven” not only “to divide the day from the night,” but also to serve as “signs.”

Rheticus had of course cast his own horoscope. His birth, in the very early hours of February 16, 1514, coincided with a conjunction of the Moon and Saturn in the twelfth house. There was no mistaking the ominous import of these conditions: They augured an abnormally short life span. As an adept astrologer, Rheticus knew several ways to rectify a bad chart. In one experiment, he technically escaped his fate by moving his birthday to the previous day, February 15, and changing the time from nine minutes before the second hour of the morning to 3:26 in the afternoon. These alterations divided Saturn from the Moon and moved them into separate houses, granting him a reprieve. But it seems unlikely that such fiddling would have rid Rheticus of the fear of impending doom. A sword, like the one that had severed his father’s head, hung menacingly over his own.