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In Olsztyn

Administrator of the cathedral chapter estates

Upon assuming the office of Administrator General (8 November 1516) Copernicus took up residence in Olsztyn Castle (Allenstein) then regarded as the best-protected stronghold in Warmia (one of the reasons the chapter’s archives had been moved there in 1502). The learned canon moved into a large chamber with a beautiful diamond-vaulted ceiling in the north-west wing of the castle.

From then on Copernicus administered the vast estates of the chapter in the Olsztyn fiscal district (Kammeramt Allenstein - 59 villages) and the Pieniężno district (Kammeramt Mehlsack - 60 villages), their total area covering ca 3,650 fiefs (1 fief = 16.8 hectares). His main responsibilities included setting, inspecting and collecting rental payments and other feudal dues from towns, villages, mills and inns. Alongside profits made from farms, lakes and forests, these payments constituted the main revenue source for the canons, therefore Copernicus was obliged to ensure the good economic standing of those under his supervision. He wielded judicial control over the population, ensured security and, with the consent of the chapter, appointed and inspected the burgraves who held their offices in the castles of Olsztyn and Pieniężno. He also appointed assessors, councillors and mayors in both places and heard appeals against the verdicts of local assessor courts, referring only more serious civil cases to the higher authority of the cathedral chapter in Frombork (Frauenburg). Every year Copernicus toured the estates in both districts checking their economic condition and the marking of their boundaries, while submitting his report and account of costs on 8 November (the deadline was always this date). He supervised the functioning of the chapter chancery and managed its archival material. It seems that at the beginning of his tenure in Olsztyn he made an inventory of all the chapter documents stored in the castle treasury while during the Polish-Teutonic war in 1520, he made yet another complete, comprehensive version.

Copernicus in Olsztyn during the Polish-Teutonic War of 1519-21

The competence and commitment of Bishop Watzenrode’s nephew could not have passed unnoticed because Copernicus remained in office until November 1519. Later on he was appointed chancellor of the cathedral chapter in Frombork but after the Teutonic troops had burnt the town and the canons’ residences (curiae) there on 23 January 1520, he had no choice but to return to Olsztyn where he resumed his administrative duties and remained in the castle until October 1521. Disturbed by news of victories for the Teutonic Order, and worried about the safety of the castle, Copernicus wrote a letter to Sigismund, the Polish King, begging him for help. In this letter of 16 November 1520 he assured the king that the canons wanted to act as befitted ‘noble and honourable’ citizens faithful to the king and prepared to die for the cause. The Polish monarch sent reinforcements led by Zbigniew Słupecki to Olsztyn while Copernicus was busy doing his best to strengthen the defensive system of the castle. Due to their combined efforts, the reinforced Olsztyn garrison was able to fight off the Teutonic mercenary troops led by Wilhelm Schaumburg. Dreading another enemy attack he continued purchasing military equipment as administrator of the castle until March 1521 when an armistice was signed between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Order, for the time being averting the threat of another siege.

Resettling the countryside

In the times of peace Copernicus supervised those chapter estates which had been devastated and deserted as a result of the Thirteen Years War (1454-66) and the ensuing armed conflict between King Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk) and Nicolaus Tungen (1478-9). This supervision in practice meant a continuation of a former campaign, populating the deserted areas with suitable settlers. Copernicus was therefore forced to travel extensively which often exposed him to imminent danger especially during the times of intensified brigandage encouraged and supported by the Teutonic Order.

Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, Copernicus kept a special register (Locationes mansorum desertorum) in which he entered each resettlement transaction. According to the register, between 10 December 1516 and 31 May 1521 Copernicus visited forty-three villages in both districts and concluded seventy-two settlement contracts. In 1521, because of the war raging, he was able to enter into just seven contracts and only with those settling close to Olsztyn. The contents of these contracts show that, because of a severe labour shortage in the area, Copernicus had searched neighbouring Mazovia (Mazowsze) for prospective settlers who would take over the deserted farms. This influx of Polish farmers from that region started a process of gradual polonisation of southern Warmia. Inquisitive by nature and experienced in solving economic problems, Copernicus took an interest in the monetary system used in his time. His first treatises on coinage (1517, 1519) written during his tenure in Olsztyn were to serve the future reform of the monetary system throughout the Prussian province.

Astronomical observations and medical activity

While residing in the castle, Copernicus undertook astronomical observations using instruments especially brought to Olsztyn for this purpose (a triquetrum and an astrolabe). On the rendered wall below the castle cloisters he drew an astronomical table used for calculating and determining the time of the equinoxes (which has survived). He also gained a reputation as a physician who not only offered professional medical care to his fellow canons and their families but also tried to take preventive measures against the epidemics which occasionally broke out in Warmia.

The Olsztyn ‘bread tariff’ - 1531

In the 1520s and 30s Copernicus visited Olsztyn several times, most often as an inspector (wizytator) and envoy (poseł) of the chapter. In 1531 he calculated what was known as the ‘Olsztyn bread tariff’ (Ratio panaria Allensteinensis), determined taking into account current wheat and rye prices, the weight of the flour used and the amount of bread baked, while allowing for additional costs. This ‘fair bread price’ was to be binding in Lidzbark Warmiński (Heilsberg) and other towns in Warmia.

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University