School Days in Poland

Nicolaus Copernicus, the youngest of four children, was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun, a thriving town on the banks of the Vistula River in Poland. He was named after his father, a prosperous merchant, who had moved to Torun from Cracow. In his early 40s, he married Barbara Watzenrode, who belonged to a prominent family of merchants in Torun. "Nicholas" is the English spelling of the name Copernicus's parents gave their second son. It may have been originally "Niklas," and he may have been called "Nikkie" as a boy. However, when he left Torun to go to school in Cracow, Niklas would become Nicolaus—the Latin spelling most commonly used at universities.

Torun, where Nicolaus Copernicus grew up, lies about a hundred miles south of the Baltic Sea. In the 1470s it had about 10,000 inhabitants, including many merchants and mill owners engaged in foreign trade. They sent cloth, grain, and forest products by the Vistula River to the Baltic Sea, and from there to England, France, and other countries of western Europe. The bustling activities along the docks would have fascinated Nicolaus as a boy.

Toru Redniowieczny Grafika

Torun (or Thorn), the city of Copernicuss birth, with the Vistula River in the foreground, in a panorama from 1684. The 14th-century churches of St. John (A), St. James (B), and the Virgin Mary (C) still stand today.

James School Isle Grain
The merchant's house (second from the left) where Nicolaus Copernicus was born, with its fancy double facades, is now a museum in the city ofTorun, Poland.

There were other places as well where young boys and girls could explore nature and history. An island in the middle of the Vistula River was heavily wooded and full of game. The river teemed with fish. Then there was the castle of the Teutonic Knights that the townsfolk had raided and destroyed only 20 years before Nicolaus was born. The ruins provided many caves and crevices in which young boys could play.

However, life was not all play. In school, Nicolaus had to learn to read and write, but not the German language he spoke at home. Rather it was Latin, the international language of Europe, the heritage of the Roman Empire from more than a thousand years earlier. So, besides spelling and grammar, he had to learn the meanings of a whole new set of words: amo, I love; amas, you love; amat, she/he/it loves; amamus, we love; and puella, the girl; puellae, of/to/for the girl; puella, by/with/from the girl. Memorize the lessons, play in the woods, go to church, and, at the end of a long day, take a candle up the narrow stairway to snuggle into a small wooden bed—that was his daily routine.

Nicolaus's father was active in the political affairs of those troubled times. Torun lay in the southwest corner of the territory of Prussia, which is on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea. Until the 1200s, Prussia had been the domain of pagan Slavic tribes. Christian rulers of eastern Europe invited warriors from the Crusades (a series of wars European Christians fought to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslims) to subdue the Prussians. The warriors belonged to the Order of Teutonic Knights.They conquered Prussia by building fortress towns at strategic locations, and then converted the Prussians to Christianity. The Knights continued to control Prussia for the next two hundred years.

For a while, Polish authorities in the south accepted the Teutonic Knights' Christianizing conquests in the province of Prussia. However, in the early 1400s, stronger rulers made Poland more unified, and they came to resent the Knights' control over their access to the Baltic. Moreover, merchants in the Prussian towns objected to having no part in Prussia's government. After some military successes, the Poles wrested control of western parts of Prussia from the Knights and gained access to the Baltic through Torun to Gdansk at the mouth of the Vistula River.

For 40 years an uneasy peace reigned between Poland and Prussia. Conflict broke out again in 1454, during which time the senior Copernicus joined with other merchants of Torun to lend financial support to the Polish king. Finally, in 1466, Poland was again victorious. In the peace treaty signed at Torun in 1466, the knight-commander of the Teutonic

The astronomer's father kneels in prayer in this 17th-century copy of an older painting. The existence of such a pious portrait confirms that Copernicus came from a prosperous Catholic family.

At the Battle of Grunwalda, the Polish-Lithuanian army, led by King Wladyslav II Jagiello of Poland, defeated the knights of the Teutonic Order in 1410. It was one of the most horrendous battles Europe had known up to that time, with more than 40,000 soldiers killed in a single day.

Knights accepted the authority of the king of Poland and took the title Duke of Prussia. As young Nicolaus played around the ruins of the Teutonic Knights' castle in Torun a few years later, he could not have known that he himself would have to do battle against these Knights in the coming years.

The climate of Torun is much like that of Chicago or Toronto, except that summer highs are rarely above 25° C, or winter lows below -10° C. The Vistula River may be frozen for about three months in the winter. Although rain and snowfall are not excessive, humidity is generally high and the sky is often overcast.Yet Torun is more than seven hundred miles closer to the North Pole than Chicago. It is as far north as Edmonton, Canada. As a result, young Nicolaus saw the sun set before 4 p.m. during December. At noon the sun hung low in the southern sky, only about 15° above the horizon. With less than eight hours of daylight at that time of year, Nicolaus got up and went to bed in the dark.

On clear nights in the winter, Nicolaus could gaze at thousands of stars twinkling like tiny diamonds in a black velvet sky. In our world of city lights and atmospheric pollution, it is rare to appreciate such a sight today. For night watchers five hundred years ago, a clear sky sparkled with points that outlined the figures of fabulous creatures:

Summer solstice

/ Winter solstice

Summer solstice

/ Winter solstice

South

Dec 22

June 21 Mar 20 c

Sunset in west

Sep 23

Dec 22

June 21 Mar 20 c

Sunset in west

Sep 23

The dotted lines represent the path of the sun across the sky as seen from the latitudes of northern Poland at various key times of the year, the summer and winter solstices and the equinox.

South

Orion, the Great Bear, and dozens of other constellations. Watching for a couple of hours, Nicolaus could see that the constellations remained as permanent patterns but wheeled across the sky at the same rate (almost) as the sun in the daytime. For example, in the course of six hours, the Big Dipper traveled through an angle of 90°.

The whole starry system seemed to rotate about an imaginary line joining the earth's center to the North Star once a day. As the North Star remained nearly fixed about 53° above Nicolaus's northern horizon, why did the sun change its angle of elevation day by day? By the end ofJune, Nicolaus would see the noon sun at 60° above the horizon. Eventually he learned that the sun traces a path against the background of the stars in a plane that is tilted at 23.5° from the equator of the earth (and the starry sphere).

Nicolaus might have heard that northern peoples in ancient times held midwinter festivals to coax the sun to come back higher in the sky to restore the warmth of summer. Two thousand years before his time, Greek astronomers had shown the sun, stars, and planets, wheeling around on regular paths. And many people were convinced that the movement of the planets had influence on the course of

In the geocentric view that Copernicus studied as a schoolboy, the earth was fixed in the center of the cosmos. The sphere of stars spun around the earth each day, but as it spun the sun slowly moved along its tilted path, completing its circuit in a year.

Celestial Sphere Diagram Seasons

human events. Although the church discouraged such astrological beliefs, they were widely held and provided a major reason for the study of astronomy. There is no evidence to suggest that astrology was a factor in Copernicus's interest in astronomy.

Sadly, when Nicolaus was 10, his father died. His two sisters were old enough to get on with their lives—his elder sister became a nun and his younger sister married a mer-chant—but the father's death made it less certain that the boys would be able to afford to attend university. Fortunately, their mother's brother came to the aid of the family. Lucas Watzenrode, age 36, was a member of the board of managers in two Catholic dioceses. Called canons of the cathedral chapter, these managers conducted the business affairs of each diocese, and were particularly in charge of collecting rents from the tenants of their considerable land holdings.While they accepted minor religious responsibilities, the canons were not necessarily ordained as priests.

Lucas was an ambitious man, eager to rise in the church hierarchy, and he extended his ambition to his young nephew

A schoolmaster lectures to his pupils in this 16th-century woodcut. This school was for boys only, which was typical in Copernicuss day.

Nicolaus. He supported the Copernicus family while the boys completed their schooling. Nicolaus, besides improving his proficiency in reading and writing Latin, learned the basics of arithmetic and developed some skill in drawing. He had no inkling that these skills would eventually be put to use in advancing his interest in astronomy.

At 42, Lucas Watzenrode achieved his ambition of being elected bishop of Varmia with the concurrence of both King Casimir IV of Poland and Pope Innocent VIII. Varmia was a tract of two thousand square miles to the northeast of Torun, almost entirely surrounded by the part of Prussia that was still ruled by the Teutonic Knights. The cathedral church of Varmia was located in Frombork on the Baltic coast, but the bishop's palace was situated in Lidzbark, 40 miles southeast of Frombork. As bishop of Varmia, Lucas was in effect the governor of the territory. As the chief administrator, he had considerable power over church appointments and could thereby enhance his family's fortunes; perhaps bright young nephew Nicolaus could follow in his uncle's footsteps.

The first order of business was to complete Nicolaus's schooling in Torun.After that, in the autumn of 1491, Lucas enrolled Nicolaus and his older brother Andreas in Jagiellonian University in Cracow, where Lucas had himself been a student 25 years earlier. Nicolaus was now firmly set upon the road of his uncle's ambition.With hard work and influence in the right places, he, too, could become a bishop.

A schoolmaster lectures to his pupils in this 16th-century woodcut. This school was for boys only, which was typical in Copernicuss day.

Medieval Spinner Weaver Woodblock

The Wawel Castle of the Jagiellonian kings stands high above the walled university town of Cracow, while the Vistula River flows around its battlements, in this woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle. The chronicle, the story of humanity up to the time of the book's publication in 1493, includes histories of several European cities.

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