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Copernicus' nationality

There is some controversy regarding Nicolaus Copernicus' nationality (Polish or German).

The controversy involves two debates. The first debate is over whether he was Polish or German. The second debate is over whether the language of this question, and the two answers it suggests, is meaningful and appropriate to Copernicus' times, or only to the present time; in other words, did the words "nationality," "Polish," and "German" mean the same thing to Copernicus and his contemporaries as they mean to us, or something else?

The First Debate

This debate starts with the origins of his surname, Koppernigk.

Many authors consider it to be derived from the name of the village of Koeppernig, near Neisse, in Silesia. More likely, however, is that the name is of Slavic origin, and is a Germanized version of Koprnih.

He several times signed as his name Kopperlingk, possibly because his father's family business in the city of Torun (German Thorn) was copper and therefore the Low German Kopper (High German Kupfer) and the -lingk ending indicated someone who dabbled in copper. It has been the custom of German people to take on the occupations or the town names as last names.

Those who consider Copernicus to be Polish underline the fact that Copernicus' great-grandfather had obtained citizenship in the city of Krakow around 1400. Krakow, like many medieval cities, had been created under Magdeburg law and later became a Hanseatic League city, but was undoubtedly Polish.

Copernicus' father moved then to Thorn/Torun around 1456, shortly after the town had passed from the suzerainty of the Order of Teutonic Knights to that of the King of Poland. In terms of the political geography of his time, the position that Copernicus was born Polish is undoubtedly correct. The counter argument is, that the orphaned Copernicus children "migrated" to Warmia, ruled by their uncle Prince-Bishop Lucas Watzenrode (approved to have that title, by the king of Poland), who then raised them. Copernicus' father was a treasurer of Zwiazek Jaszczurczy (Lizard Organisation) an organisation involved in protecting Polish interests against these of Teutonic Order. Among other things they co-financed the 1466 war between Poland and the Order

There is supposed evidence to suggest that Copernicus was Polish by allegiance (in terms of the politics of the time): in 1512, when he was Canon of the Chapter of Frombork, Copernicus swore allegiance to King Sigismund I of Poland (who, before becoming king of Poland, had already become and remained governor of Silesia. While allocating a plot of land to a peasant April 23rd 1517 he wrote this line: "actum dias St Adalberti, Pater Patroni et Apostoli" (given on the day of St Adalbert, patron of the Motherland and apostole). St Adalbert (Wojciech) is a patron of Poland.

Also, in 1520, after the outbreak of war between Poland and the Teutonic Knights, Copernicus was a member of Sigismund's embassy to the Grand Master requesting restoration of Braniewo. While these acts might be interpreted as mere formalities or acts of political pragmatism, it must be noted that he also actively organized the defence of Olsztyn in Royal Prussia's Warmia against the Teutonic Order. It must also be noted that there was a civil war going on in Teutonic Prussia, where some cities were for the Catholic government of the Teutonic Knights and others were against it and wanted to become Protestant. Copernicus and his uncle Watzenrode remained Catholic.

Those who consider Copernicus a German point out that his grandmother and mother were German immigrants to Poland, as was his uncle Watzelrode. They also claim that many Germans came to Torun from Silesia (province then populated by 75% of Poles) to live and/or work, and that the town itself had been German for more than two centuries and only came under Polish suzerainty shortly before the family arrived. Moreover, they point out that, when in Bologna, just like his uncle, he joined the German school especially established by the Vatican to educate German clergy, the "...Natio Germanorum". However, it should also be pointed out that, at that time, there was in fact no country called Germany. Instead there was the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation. Another fact is that "natio" was student corporation, not declaration of nationality. In most universities there were Italian, German etc "natio"s and most of Polish students was joining German "natio".

The Copernicus manuscript book states :...Nicolaus Copernicus Canon (in) Warmia, in Prussia Germaniae mathematician...(Nicolai Copernick Canonici Varmiensis, in Borussia Germaniae mathematici)

There are no extant letters written by Copernicus in Polish - those which have survived are all in Latin or German. However, Latin was at the time the international language of scholars and those letters in German might have been addressed to German-speakers and therefore for this specific purpose written in that language. The official languages of the Holy Roman Empire were Latin and German. (The Spanish Habsburg emperor(s) had to sign an agreement, to only use Latin or German in official HRE business.)

The surviving letters in German were correspondence with Prussian duke Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach, with whom Copernicus coordinated the Prussian coin reform and other internal Prussian government business.

The Second Debate

While the determination of Copernicus' nationality is clearly of great importance to some, others hold that the above debate is at best anachronistic, the attempts by much later generations to impose a modern nationality upon a man whose life belonged to the Late Middle Ages, when the modern geopolitical entities "Germany" and "Poland" did not even exist, and whose contributions to scientific progress should not be overshadowed by the needs of ethnic nationalists.