A Revolution in Print

To celebrate 550 years since the birth of Copernicus and 480 years since the publication of his work, our STEM curator discusses our copies of De Revolutionibus.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the Polish mathematician and astronomer was a towering figure of the European Renaissance. The publication in 1543 of his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (“On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres”) brought his heliocentric model of the solar system to prominence in the scientific and religious establishments of Europe. Up to this point, the theory that the Sun and planets orbited the Earth, put forward by the Graeco-Egyptian scientist Claudius Ptolemy in his Almagest of circa 150 BC had been the prevailing orthodox view. The Ptolemaic model had the added advantage of comporting with the Biblical interpretation of the heavens.

Portrait engraving of Nicolaus Copernicus
Copperplate portrait of Copernicus by Theodore de Bry, published in Jean Jacques Boissard in Icones Virorum Illustrium, Frankfurt, 1597. (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The idea of a Sun-centred universe wasn’t entirely new: the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos proposed the theory in the third century BC. Copernicus’ major breakthrough was to support the theory with a vast amount of data and mathematical computation.

Copernicus had begun work on his model of the universe as early as 1514, when he circulated a manuscript known as the Commentariolus or “Little Commentary” amongst his friends and fellow scientists. However it was De Revolutionibus which popularised his theory and cemented his scientific reputation.

The Rylands is fortunate to have 3 copies of this seminal astronomical and mathematical work: 2 copies of the first edition of 1543, which were printed in Nuremberg and one of the second edition, printed in Basel in 1566. According to a census of copies of De Revolutionibus conducted in 2002, there are 277 copies of the first edition and 324 of the second currently known.

Title page of De Revolutionibus,  SC13364C.
Title page of De Revolutionibus with inscription by Na: Freind, 1664.

The inscription Na: Friend 1664 appears on the title-page and it’s likely that it was once owned by Nathaniel Freind, who was schoolmaster of Westerleigh Endowed School in Gloucestershire from 1662 to 1687. It was presented to the University by Dr Henry Wilde, F.R.S., an electrical engineer from Manchester who amassed a substantial fortune and donated considerable amounts of money and resources to academic institutions across the UK in support of science and engineering.

Page from De Revolutionibus showing the Solar System with the Sun at the centre
The heliocentric model of the solar system, folio 9 verso.

Our copy at SC13364C was digitised and added to the Manchester Digital Collections Platform as part of the Rylands work to support From Papyrus to Print: The History of the Book in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, a module on the MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies course. This module examines the book as a physical and cultural artefact and is taught by specialists drawn from across the School of Arts Languages and Cultures and the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. It investigates the book as a bearer of cultural residue, and as a pivotal resource for understanding the development of writing and reading from late antiquity to the dawn of print.    

Page from De Revolutionibus showing marginal notes in Latin
Mathematical marginalia on folio 112 recto.

This copy is heavily annotated on 59 pages of the text in Latin in an early Germanic hand. There are frequent illustrations of geometric formulae described in the text and numerous mathematical calculations, as in the image above. The annotations on folios 111 verso and 112 recto explicitly reference “The Prutenic Tables” or Prutenicae tabulae coelestium motuum of Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553), an ephemeris or collection of astronomical tables published in 1551 which were based on Copernicus’ calculations. Their name derives from the Latin word for Prussia, Prutenia as the were published under the patronage of Albert I, Duke of Prussia (1490-1568). Although a supporter of his work, Reinhold adapted Copernicus’ methods back into a geocentric model of the solar system.

Reinhold’s own heavily annotated copy of De Revolutionibus is held by the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in their Crawford Collection of astronomical books and instruments.

As the first European scientist to propose the heliocentric model of the solar system, Copernicus gave his name not only a revolutionary model of the universe but also to a metaphor for any significant change in practice or thinking. The phrase “Copernican Revolution” has been used to describe seismic shifts in fields as diverse as philosophy and business management.

Finally, if you are wondering what the phrase in Greek on the title page says, it’s a sensible, if somewhat exclusionary piece of advice to any potential reader:

“Ageometretos oudeis eisito”

“Let no one untutored in geometry enter here”

Steven Hartshorne, Curator of Science, Technology and Medicine Rare Books

Further Reading

Copernicus, Nicolaus Nicolai Copernici Torinensis : De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium, libri vi. (Nuremberg, 1543)

Gingerich, Owen An annotated census of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (Leiden, 2002)

Westman, Robert S. The Copernican Question : prognostication, skepticism, and celestial order (London, c.2011)

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