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Original: lost

Copies: Aberdeen, University Library, King's College, 521 Cop 2 (2), fol. r-v, 85bis r-v, 100bis r, 148bis r-v, 160 bis v, 168ter r-v (Duncan Liddel's copy dated 1585); Stockholm, Kunglige Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens Bibliotek, fol. 1-16 (in Johann Hewelke's exemplar of "De Revolutionibus", Basileae 1566); Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Sammlung von Handschriften und alten Drucken, Cod. 10530, fol. 34-43 (Christian Sorensen Longberg's Copy, after 1589)

The earth is a planet in: motion. This basic truth was proclaimed and rationally elaborated, for the first time in mankind's long history, by the little treatise commonly called Copernicus' Commentariolus. That title was not bestowed on it by him. In fact, he did not give it any title. Nor did he attach his name to it. He had good reason to conceal his authorship. Since the earth is a planet, it is in heaven along with the other planets. Since the earth is in heaven, the old distinction between earth and heaven is dissolved. Nobody on earth has to wait for death in order to go to heaven. Every human being is already in heaven at the instant of birth. The familiar exhortation to lead a moral life in order to ascend to heaven is bound to sound silly to anyone who understands the theological implications of the Copernican astronomy and wants to lead a moral life for secular reasons.

As a canon of Varmia, as a Roman Catholic ecclesiastic, Copernicus had no desire to weaken belief in the cosmological underpinnings of his own religion. On the other hand, as an innovative astronomer, he was profoundly convinced that the traditional view of the earth as stationary was wrong. Living in an age of savage sectarian strife, he knew only too well what fate awaited those accused of spreading disbelief in hallowed dogma. Yet his momentous discovery, or re-discovery, would not remain quietly locked up in his own brain. He therefore committed it to paper. And what then? It is not true that he "concealed his theories" throughout "the entire period that had elapsed since his first discovery of the heliocentric theory."1 He neither "concealed his theories" nor did he have them printed. Instead, he chose a middle course. Avoiding complete silence on one side, and unrestricted publication on the other side, he distributed handwritten copies to a few trusted professional friends.

He had as friends ... Cracow astronomers, formerly his fellow-students, with whom he corresponded about eclipses and observations of eclipses according to his earliest well-informed biographer2.

One of these handwritten copies found its way into the possession of a professor at the University of Cracow, Matthew of Miechów (1457-1523), who completed the inventory of his library on 1 May 1514. An entry in that inventory reads as follows:

A manuscript of six leaves expounding the theory of an author who asserts that the earth moves while the sun stands still3.

This description unmistakably fits Copernicus' Commentariolus with respect to both its length and its essential contents. The entry also shows that the manuscript circulated without the author's name and without any title. Matthew of Miech6w's last will and testament disposed of the wooden box containing his copy of Commentariolus. With this clue as a guide, the writer of the recent study of Matthew's library searched long and hard and unsuccessfully for the present whereabouts of Matthew's copy of Commentariolus, which he concluded no longer exists4.

By the same token no trace has ever been found of Copernicus' original draft of Commentariolus. Nevertheless it is possible to form a reasonable conjecture concerning its fate. Toward the end of his life Copernicus acquired his only disciple, George Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574). Arriving in Frombork with an armful of valuable books for his new master, Rheticus undoubtedly received gifts in exchange. These apparently included Commentariolus as written by Copernicus' own hand. Whereas Rheticus bequeathed his unfinished trigonometrical works and Copernicus' autograph manuscript of Revolutions to his younger collaborator, he left the remainder of his library to a fellow-physician, Thaddeus Hajek (1525-1600). The following year, on l. November 1575, at the ceremonies celebrating the crowning of the king of the Romans Rudolph II at Regensburg, Hajek, who was the emperor's personal physician, met the illustrious Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). A book about the nova of 1572, a subject dear to the heart of Brahe, had just been published by Hajek. While talking to Brahe, Hajek found out that he had a high regard for Copernicus, and therefore gave him Copernicus' draft of Commentariolus, which had formed part of Rheticus' legacy to Hajek. The latter could not have chosen a more suitable person to whom to transmit this precious document. For, as Brahe related in a published work,

A certain little treatise (tractatulus) by Copernicus, concerning the hypotheses which he formulated, was presented to me in handwritten form some time ago at Regensburg by that most distinguished man Thaddeus Hajek, who has long been my friend. Subsequently, I sent the treatise to certain other astronomers in Germany. I mention this fact to enable the persons into whose hands the manuscript comes to know its provenience5.

The manuscript owes not only its distribution to Brahe but also the title it now bears. For when Hajek turned it over to Brahe, telling him that its author was Copernicus (as he had learned from Rheticus), the work still lacked a title. This deficiency was made good by Brahe when he had his staff prepare copies to be sent to other astronomers. Those copies displayed the following heading:

Nicolai Copernici de hypothesibus motuum caelestium a se constitutis commentariolus Nicholas Copernicus' little treatise on the hypotheses formulated by himself for the heavenly motions.

Copernicus wrote Commentariolus before 1 May 1514. How long before that date? Not during his student years after 1491 at the University of Cracow, whose professors showed not the slightest interest in geokineticism. Nor about 1500, when Copernicus in Rome "lectured on astronomy before a large audience of students and a throng of great men and experts in this branch of knowledge6", whose silence about what Copernicus said proves that he did not mention geokineticism, then a highly controversial idea which would surely have provoked a host of heated reactions from so articulate an audience. Nor before the middle of 1508, when Corvinus referred to the "alternating movements7" of Copernicus' sun, which became motionless in Commentariolus. Hence we may safely conclude that Copernicus wrote Commentariolus at some time between the latter half of 1508 and early 1514. Late in 1510 he finally decided not to try to succeed his uncle as bishop of Varmia, and instead to devote his best energies to astronomy. For he had caught a glimpse of his new geokinetic, heliostatic universe, the glimpse that found its first expression in Commentariolus.

As a general rule, Commentariolus does not indicate from what sources it drew its information. Ptolemy, the greatest ancient astronomer, was not yet directly available, since the Greek text of Syntaxis was first published in 1538, and the earliest printing of a Latin translation was completed on 10 January 1515. Epitome, however, was published in Venice in 1496, the year of Copernicus' arrival in Italy;

Commentariolus' use of Epitome, 111,2, and V, 22, is evident. So is Commentariolus' use of Giorgio Valla's Seek and Avoid as well as of Pliny's Natural History. What other sources were tapped by Commentariolus will have to be determined by further research.

Copernicus sent out a few copies of Commentariolus, as we saw above. Perhaps an unpleasant rebuff made him decide against disclosing Revolutions, which he was already planning while he was writing Commentariolus. In later years, while working on Revolutions, he said nothing about Commentariolus, since it expressed views which were contradicted or abandoned in Revolutions. For all that Copernicus did about it, the world would never have known about the existence of Commentariolus. The same may be said about Rheticus (who presumably received Copernicus' original draft) and Hajek, who acquired it from Rheticus and passed it on to Brahe. Thanks to Brahe, however, Commentariolus survived, since all three of our manuseripts are descended in one way or another from the Copernicus-Rheticus-Hajek-Brahe manuscript. Brahe's enthusiastic diffusion of Commentariolus evoked only two responses, Liddel's and Longberg's. Thereafter a curtain of silence descended for two and three-quarter centuries until one of the copies was found in the Austrian National Library in Vienna by Maximilian Curtze, who published it in 1878 and revived interest in Commentariolus, an interest that has continued unabated until the present day.

From Edward Rosen's Introduction published in:
Nicholas Copernicus Minor Works (Warsaw-Cracow, 1985).

1 Noel M. Swerdlow, The Holograph of the Revolutions and the Chronology of its Composition, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 1974, 5, p. 191.

2 Simon Starowolski, Hekatontas (Venice, 1627), p. 161.

3 Leszek Hajdukiewicz, Biblioteka Macieja z Miechowa (Wrocław, 1960), p. 218, no. 189.

4 Ibid., p. 99.

5 Tycho Brahe, Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, part 2, see: Tychonis Brahe dani opera omnia (Copenhagen, 1913-1929), vol. II, 428/34-40.

6 Edward Rosen, Three Copernican Treatises, (New York, 1971), p. III.

7 See Corvinus' introduction to Copernicus' translation of: Theophilacti Scolastici Simocati, Epistolae morales, rurales et amatoriae, interpretatione latina, [Cracoviae, J. Haller, 1509], section V, last paragraph.