NCT » Biography » Copernicus in Warmia (1503-1543) »

Copernicus at the chapter of Warmia

Towards the end of 1510 Copernicus came to reside on the cathedral hill dominating Frombork (Frauenburg), a town with a population slightly above 1,000 with a magnificent cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and St Andrew the Apostle which, together with other buildings located in a square nearby (chapterhouse, school, canonical lodgings and a library), was then an important religious and cultural centre. Outside the defensive wall of the town stood summer houses surrounded by gardens and all kinds of service buildings belonging to the canons. The houses varied in terms of size and the fittings that could be found inside and as a rule, seniority was the deciding factor for the kind that could be acquired. Canons of short standing would get the worst and least comfortable houses and only the death of an elder canon would give them a chance to upgrade their living standards.

Places of residence and sources of income

Most probably his first canonical residence, the Curia Copernicana, was in a corner tower in the defensive wall encircling the town vacated on the death of Martin Achtsnicht (d. 4 March 1504). The tower was of small value, but the fledgling canon who had been absent from Frombork for such a long time seemed not to have cared for the comforts of life. Not until after his return from Lidzbark in 1510 did he take over a house located outside the town walls that had been vacated on the death of Enoch von Kobelau (d. 28 March 1512) and immediately undertook its reconstruction. A summons sent to the learned canon from Warmia, by the prelates of the Lateran Council of 1513, inviting him to help them in work on the reform of the Julian calendar obliged the astronomer to install an observation post (a so-called pavimentum) in his garden. Copernicus kept this residence (curia) just as he did the uncomfortable tower for the rest of his life. He was equally reluctant to part with the granges which generated most of his income and while still in Bologna on 4 February 1499 he had received one by proxy previously belonging to Michael Vox. Copernicus renounced that property in early June 1512 simultaneously taking over from Balthasar Stockfisch the second Seblec allodium which he doubtlessly kept until his death.

Canonical offices held and duties undertaken

All kinds of decisions pertaining to the allocation of residences and granges were made at regular meetings of the chapter at which the presence of the canons was mandatory. The business of its annual general assembly, convened each year on 8 November, included the presentation of financial reports submitted by retiring office holders, and the appointment of their successors. Having the generation of the highest possible income from their common property in mind, the chapter did its best to hand those offices over to the most competent and deserving canons. Such was Copernicus, a fully-fledged high-ranking official who later proved to be the most hardworking member of the chapter. A nephew of the disliked bishop he was nevertheless appointed chancellor on 8 November 1510 and from then on his responsibilities included conducting official correspondence on behalf of the chapter and responsibility for some offices, the custodiae in particular. He must have performed his duties exemplarily because he held this office uninterruptedly until 1513 and then again in 1520 as well as in 1524-5 and in 1529. At the end of 1516, after a three-year break when the astronomer was engaged in work on the first draft of the new calendar, Copernicus assumed the highest-ranking canonical office, that of ‘Administrator’, which he held until 1519 (and again in 1520-1). At the same time he took up residence in the castle of Olsztyn (Allenstein) and administered the canonical estates within its fiscal districts (kammeraemter) and that of Pieniężno (Mehlsack). His duties entailed extensive touring of these areas and, during the conflict with the Teutonic Order in 1520-1, the defence of Olsztyn castle when besieged by Teutonic troops. After military operations had been suspended, Copernicus became ‘commissioner’ for Warmia (Warmiae commisarius) in July 1521 which obliged him to take care of those estates in the Frombork fiscal district (Frauenburg) which had suffered most in the recent war.

While working as an inspector (1510-1, 1532-3, 1535-6) and envoy (1523-4, 1530-1, 1538-9) Copernicus, accompanied by another canon, would make an annual tour at the end of each calendar year of the chapter’s estates, inspecting and assessing their economic standing and preparing them for defence. Moreover, he would settle complaints and collect rents from the administrators of individual estates. Sporadically, he also held lesser posts such as ‘provisions fund’ administrator (1512-3); the office for the execution of last wills and testaments and responsibility for the military defences on the cathedral hill (1537-8); and financial manager of the cathedral (1540-1). Together with Tiedemann Giese, he was ‘Guardian of the Counting Table’ and administered the proceeds from the sale of the village of Bażyny (Basien) and a number of others in the Tolkemit district (starostwotolkmickie).

As an envoy of the chapter of Warmia, Copernicus would also visit Lidzbark (Heilsberg) in order to discuss current economic, political and legal problems with the bishop. On the death of Fabianus Lusianus (Fabian Tetinger von Lossainen; d. 30.01.1523) he even became the ‘Administrator General’ of the bishopric and retained that office until Mauritius Ferber was ordained in autumn 1523. Copernicus promoted and defended the interests of the bishopric at assemblies of the ‘Prussian estates’ (convened to resolve the Polish-Teutonic conflict, discuss monetary reform and to codify ‘Culm Law’ - prawo chełmińskie. He might also have gone on an official visit to Königsberg. After the peace treaty ending the war between Poland and the Teutonic Order had been signed and Teutonic Prussia (Prusy Krzyżackie) had been converted in 1525 into the secular duchy of Ducal Prussia (Prusy Książęce), Copernicus assumed responsibility for maintaining good neighbourly relations with its duke, Albrecht I. He was also present in Bartoszyce (Bartenstein) on 6 July 1528 where a common territorial legal code (Landesordnung) was adopted. His conscientiousness, versatility and extensive medical knowledge had not passed unnoticed at the court of the Polish King Sigismund the Old (Zygmunt Stary) who showed his appreciation by nominating Copernicus (along with three others) as a royal candidate for the bishopric of Warmia. However, the election (4 September 1537) ended in Johannes Dantiscus (Johann von Hoefen), a renowned humanist and poet, being ordained the new bishop of the diocese.

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University
The cathedral chapter in Frombork in the times of Copernicus   In Olsztyn
print form
Mikołaj Kopernik
strona główna
strona główna