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The cathedral chapter in Frombork in the times of Copernicus

Established in 1260 for the purpose of common divine worship and to help the bishop manage the diocese, the chapter of Frombork (Frauenburg) was the type of corporation that enjoyed a good deal of autonomy, not only in the ways it organized its church activities or its internal affairs, but also in the way it selected its members and enacted its statutes. These were drafted and passed in cooperation with the bishop.

Organised on the model of the chapter of Meissen, the corporation of Frombork was composed of 16 canons, of which five were destined to be prelates: a provost, a dean, a precentor, a custos and a scholasticus (the latter office disappeared in 1318). At the time Copernicus settled in Warmia the provost’s office was held by Enoch von Kobelau (d. 1512) who was both ‘head’ of the chapter and external representative; the very same official in fact who accepted Copernicus’ customary oath to abide by the statutes of the chapter in the summer of 1501. On the death of Kobelau, Christoph Suchten (1513-9) was succeeded by Paweł Płotowski (1519-47). The office of the dean responsible for the administration of the chapter and the organisation of divine worship was held from 1499 by Bernard Sculteti (d. 1518) who resided permanently in Rome (where Copernicus actually met him for the first time). The cathedral hill however provided residence for Sculteti’s successors: Johann Ferber (d. 1530) and Leonard Niederhof (d. 1545). The prelatical office of custos (responsible for the chapter and cathedral treasury) was held from 1499 by Andreas Kletz (d. 1515), and later by Mauritius Ferber (until 1523), Tiedemann Giese (until 1537), Felix Reich (d. 1539) and Johannes Tymmermann (until 1552). The duties of the precentor, responsible for the organization of the choir service in the cathedral, were performed by Georg von Delau (d. 1515), then Johannes Tymmermann (until 1539), and later (until 1551) by Stanislaus Hosius (Stanisław Hozjusz) who was permanently employed at the royal court. The function of the archdeacon, Johannes Sculteti (d. 1526), who assisted the bishop in the administration of the diocese, seems to have been unspecified. His income would place him second after the provost, while in canonical resolutions his name was mentioned after the other four prelates but before the rest of the canons.

Among the remaining eleven canons there existed a fixed hierarchy mainly based on the length of their canonicate, although in the chapterhouse, in the choir stalls, and during processions and masses, the following order was generally observed: the presbyter followed by the deacon and the sub-deacon respectively. In practice however, the canons were mentioned in canonical acts by seniority, in other words according to the time of their affiliation to the corporation.

Each canon was obliged to permanently reside near the cathedral and participate in cathedral services (divinum officium), as well as pay customary chapter fees amounting to 8 marks for an official robe (pro cappa), 10 marks to the cathedral (pro fabrica) and 40 to the bakery (pro pistoria). Each canon was also obliged to buy and provide for three horses worth at least 9 marks. Only after these requirements had been met, could the canon participate in the meetings of the chapter during which the business of the corporation was discussed. In practice, many canons would shy away from these obligations and it seems that they most frequently failed to meet the requirement to receive ordination. Consequently, they did not personally perform their ecclesiastical duties but used vicars as their substitutes.

The canons residing on the cathedral hill would inherit stalls and altars from their predecessors together with the right to buy a residence (curia), and a grange (folwark - allodium) which would yield a handsome profit. Above all, however, they could make use of their prebends which brought each canon 40 grzywnas per annum (but from 1519 only 30). Apart from the additional remuneration they received, for example for taking cathedral services (divinum officium) or at the funeral services of other canons, they also benefited financially while undertaking jobs such as the distribution of food and firewood.

Its high revenue together with a great deal of autonomy meant the chapter of Warmia attracted many inhabitants from other parts of Prussia who dreamt of an ecclesiastical career. In the time of Copernicus the majority of canons were from Prussian burgher families, mainly from Gdańsk (Danzig) which was then enjoying an era of great prosperity. In the early 16th c. from among 62 canons, 19 had been born there, and six in Toruń (Thorn) mostly to patrician families. This decidedly burgher character made the chapter of Frombork (Frauenburg) at this time quite different from Polish chapters dominated by the gentry. Not only did it consolidate the sense of solidarity within the corporation but it also bore upon the long-lasting and undivided adherence of the chapter of Frombork to its local interests while dealing with the Polish Kingdom. It is worth pointing out here that the constitution passed by the Polish parliament (Sejm) in Piotrków in 1496 had made it difficult for burghers to become members of Polish cathedral chapters.

The cathedral chapter of Warmia repeatedly came into conflict with Polish rulers over the election of a new bishop. As early as 1479 Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk) unsuccessfully tried to make the canons elect a candidate that would be ‘pleasing’ to the king himself, but it was Sigismund the Old (Zygmunt Stary) who finally managed to curb the chapter’s freedom to elect the bishops of Warmia as the Treaty of Piotrków of 7 December 1512 obliged it to present to the Polish king the list of its members immediately after the death of the incumbent bishop. Having scrutinized the list, the Polish monarch would then nominate four candidates from among whom the canons were to appoint a new one. The royal court in Kraków gradually exerted increasing influence on the composition of the chapter of Frombork and, paradoxically, the triumph of the reformation in Prussian cities was propitious for such a policy. From 1525, surrounded by protestant Ducal Prussia (Prusy Książęce) on three sides, catholic Warmia sought to strengthen its bonds with Poland.

The high percentage of well-educated canons was another factor integrating the corporation and distinguishing it from other Polish chapters. It was an integral element of the joint policy of the bishop and the chapter not only to foster but also to encourage the canons to pursue their education, at the same time guaranteeing them a steady income from their prebends plus an additional 15 grzywnas annually. Such a policy undoubtedly had a beneficial effect upon their intellectual development, although the majority treated their studies in a purely utilitarian way. In Copernicus’ time, after a spell at German universities or a sojourn in Krakow, many would more often than not go to Italy (Bologna or Rome) in order to gain sufficient knowledge of law and legal practice necessary for performing various functions and holding offices within the chapter and on its estates. Others, interested in classical and humanistic literature as well as ancient languages, studied outside universities, for example at royal and magnate courts in the so-called ‘palace schools’. These introduced such students to the world of scholars and those writers representing the most innovative trends in human thought, from followers of the biblical humanism professed by Erasmus of Rotterdam to propagators of the reformation. Not without reason did the see of the chapter of Frombork (Frauenburg) and the court of the Bishop of Warmia in Lidzbark (Heilsberg) enjoy reputations as very important centres of humanism in Royal Prussia (Prusy Królewskie) in addition to Gdańsk (Danzig), Toruń (Thorn) and Elbląg (Elbing).

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University