The History of Copernicus's Autograph

The year 1973 marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus and to celebrate this event the Polish Academy of Sciences published a 3-volume work of the Complete Works of Nicholas Copernicus. It was published by the Macmillan Press, London, and the Polish Scientific Publishers, Warsaw, and appeared in 1972. Volume 1 begins with a section entitled The Analysis and History of the Manuscript written by Jerzy Zathey and the following is a version of The History of Copernicus's Autograph from that section:

The History of Copernicus's Autograph

While the first edition of Copernicus's Revolutions was being printed at Nuremberg in 1543, the typesetters had before them Rheticus' copy of the manuscript. They did not have Copernicus's autograph, which shows no trace of the marks then customarily made on a manuscript by printers. At the death of Copernicus the autograph of the Revolutions passed into the hands of his closest friend, Tiedemann Giese. He in turn relinquished it to Rheticus, who, after supervising the early stages of the printing of the book at Nuremberg, went to Leipzig University, which had just appointed him professor of mathematics.

Later on Rheticus moved to Cracow, where he spent nearly eighteen years of his life. He was visited there by Valentine Otho, a Wittenberg student who was interested in Rheticus' work in trigonometry and became his disciple, collaborator, and continuator. When Rheticus departed from Cracow for Kosice (Kaschau), where he had found a wealthy patron willing to finance the time-consuming computation of his trigonometrical tables, he asked Otho to join him and bring Copernicus's autograph along. Soon thereafter, on 4 December 1574, Rheticus died at Kosice, leaving the autograph to Otho.

Otho made a notable contribution to the development of mathematics by completing and publishing Rheticus's extensive tables. After Otho's death, on 19 December 1603, Copernicus's autograph was secured from Otho's library by Jakob Christmann, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Heidelberg, "for use in the study of mathematics" (ad usum studii mathematici). Two corrections in the margins of the autograph may be related to his book, published in 1611, on Lunar Theory, Demonstrated by Means of New Hypotheses and Observations. [Jakob Christmann, Theoria lunae ex novis hypothesibus et observationibus demonstrata (Heidelberg, 1611).]

After his death, his widow sold Copernicus's autograph to a Czech student who had registered at Heidelberg on 19 June 1613. The sale was consummated at a worthy price (digno redemptum pretio) on 17 January 1614. The purchaser, John Amos Comenius (or Nivanus, as he called himself after his birthplace Nivnice), who later gained renown as an educator, led a troubled and turbulent life. Exactly when and where he disposed of Copernicus's autograph are questions which cannot be answered on the basis of the scanty information available at the present time.

From the library of Comenius, Copernicus's autograph passed, directly or indirectly, into the possession of Otto F von Nostitz. With his own hand (M. P. = Manu Propria), the new owner wrote his name on the recto of folio c, toward the bottom. After his death in 1665, the library in his castle at Jawor in Silesia was catalogued on 5 October 1667, one of the items being Copernicus's autograph. From Jawor it was later transferred to the Nostitz palace in Prague and regularly appeared in the enumerations of the library maintained by that noble Czech family famous for its collections of artistic and literary treasures. [The Nostitz Papers, Monumenta chartae papyraceae historiam illustrantia (Hilversum: Paper Publication Society, 1956).] In the inventory of 1769 Copernicus's autograph is listed as 156, the number which still appears near the bottom of its spine. Glued to the inside of its front cover is a printed bookplate of the Nostitz library, dated 1774.

As long as Copernicus's autograph remained in the hands of Rheticus, Otho, Christmann, and Comenius, its existence was not mentioned in any publications. This situation changed, however, after the autograph was incorporated in the Nostitz library. In 1788 a description of noteworthy libraries of Prague referred to Copernicus's autograph, as did also an account of Prague seven years later. [Friedrich K G Hirsching, Versuch einer Beschreibung sehenswürdiger Bibliotheken Teutschlands (Erlangen, 1788); Jaroslav Schaller, Beschreibung der Königl. Hauptstadt Prag (1795).] These first two printed references evoked no special response.

An entirely different result was produced by an article published in April 1840 in a Prague weekly newspaper. [Karl Slavomir Amerling, "Kvety", supplement 16 (30 April 1840), 63.] This article was translated from Czech into German for a weekly issued in Torun, Copernicus's birthplace, and also into Polish. [Rozmaitosci (Lwów) 35 (1840), 290-292; Thorner Wochenblatt 49 (1840), 597.] In Poland the consequences marked a turning point, since the persons responsible for the 1854 Warsaw edition of the Revolutions were able to utilize Copernicus's autograph for a limited time. The description of the autograph on the inside of its front cover beneath the bookplate of the Nostitz library is signed by Erwein Nostitz and dated 1854. In the preparation of the 1873 Thorn (Torun) edition of the Revolutions the editors had unlimited access to the autograph. This manuscript was then published in facsimile as Volume I of the Nikolaus Kopernikus Gesamtausgabe in 1944.

In 1945 the Nostitz Library in Prague was nationalized, and Copernicus's autograph thereby became state property. On 5 July 1956 the Czechoslovak government presented the priceless document to Poland. On 25 September 1956 the manuscript was placed in the custody of the first institution of higher learning attended by Copernicus, the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, which takes great pride in being the repository of the immortal creation of its most celebrated student.

Last Updated January 2019