A lawyer by education, a canon by duty, an astronomer by passion.
From childhood to studies in Krakow
He was born in Torun on February 19, 1473. He was only 10 when his father died. From that moment on, Nicolaus’s fate was inextricably linked with the protection and money of his uncle, Bishop Lukasz Watzenrode. When he was 18, he began his studies at the Krakow Academy, described as a student “who paid the entire entry fee”. Nicolaus studied at the liberal arts faculty.
His studies were of a general nature, and lecturers taught: optics, perspective, grammar, rhetoric, belles-lettres, geography, mathematics, but also Latin poems and the works of Virgil. It was in Krakow that 15 masters taught mathematics and natural sciences, but the most important thing for him was astronomy.
He connected his student life with “Sodalicja Nadwislanska”, which was a student literary society. He attended their meetings, participated in their trips, held disputes, listened, and created his personality.
He did not finish his studies with a diploma, because in 1495, on his uncle’s order, he was to go to Frombork and put on a cassock. The Statutes of Warmia, however, gave him the opportunity to continue studying, if he did not complete the former in due time and did not obtain a diploma.
Studies in Italy
He goes to study in Italy thanks to his uncle’s protection, and in 1497 he becomes a canon of Warmia in absentia, which provided him with finances to continue his studies abroad. Subsequently, in the years 1496 – 1503, he studied law in Bologna, and then in Padua, and medicine in Ferrara.
He obtained a doctorate in ecclesiastical law and the right to practice medicine. The period of his studies was the time when he developed his passion for astronomy, observed the lunar eclipse, and conducted his first measurements of the apparent motion of the Sun along the ecliptic.
In Bologna, he also became interested in the visual arts. He learned painting from Franciszek Rabolini, a painter, sculptor and engraver, there is a copy of a self-portrait that the astronomer painted on glass. Bologna studies also mean belonging to the students’ nations, gathering young people of different nationalities on territorial principles, including Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Danes who spoke German. Meetings of students’ nations consisted of joint scientific lectures and discussions.
In 1500, in the Jubilee Year, he was invited by the Sapienza University of Rome to give a public lecture on mathematics.
In Padua, his first two-year period of theoretical knowledge consisted in studying and commenting on the works of three recognized classics, which constituted the interpretation of medical knowledge. They belonged to this trinity: Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna.
It was only in the third year that elements of practical knowledge were introduced into the lectures, which included anatomy with elements of surgery, as well as knowledge about fever and special diseases. Completion of these three-year studies, supplemented with practice under the supervision of one of the outstanding doctors, allowed him to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which authorized him to practice medicine. Once a year, at the University of Padua, anatomical dissection demonstrations were held for older medical students, in which Nicolaus probably took part.
In addition to medicine, he studied ancient Greek. He translated the love letters of Theophylact Simmokatta from Greek into Latin. Seven years of his stay in Italy shaped his interests and consolidated the ideas of humanism. He considered astronomy to be the science “most worthy of a free man”.
He returned to Warmia as an expert and admirer of Greek, Latin, mathematics, astronomy, and as a lawyer and doctor by education. At the age of 31, he returns to the Republic of Poland to the bishop’s court in Lidzbark Warminski. Nicolaus learns the art of diplomacy from his uncle during the bishop’s numerous trips to Royal Prussia.
Mainly at congresses of Prussian states (representative body in Prussia). He frequented Malbork, Torun, Elblag, Kwidzyn, Gdansk, Grudziadz, but also in Krakow and Vilnius. Since 1510, he has assumed the duties of a canon of the Chapter, both religious and administrative. The main religious duties resulting from the canonry concerned the service of God, he participated in common prayer and the common recitation of the breviary.
His duties as chancellor of the chapter included handling official correspondence. He was also a delegate of the chapter to various assemblies and congresses of Prussian states. He also held the office of administrator of bailiffs in Olsztyn and Pieniezno, placed new owners on the so-called abandoned fields.
He encouraged people to settle by granting concessions and equipping farms with tools and livestock.
Achievements of a mature humanist
– In the field of military engineering – he commanded the defence of the castle in Olsztyn in 1521.
– In the field of economics – he developed the “Treatise on coins”. His speech took place in Grudziadz in 1522 . “Where a new coin is minted, the old coin must be withdrawn and replaced at the mint at the new value of silver, as much as is found in it, otherwise the old coin will spoil the new.” This law of economics is known as the Copernicus-Gresham law.
– In the field of astronomy – the creator of the heliocentric theory. “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (“On the revolutions of the celestial spheres”) proves, e.g. observations of the sun, mathematical calculations, that it is the Earth that revolves around the sun. The sun is at the center of the solar system and the planets revolve around it. It was a revolutionary concept, his work was published in 1543 in Nuremberg, but for a long time it was on the index of books banned by the Church.