De revolutionibus orbium coelestium

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Original edition, Johannes Petreius , Nuremberg 1543

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Latin for about the orbits of the celestial spheres ) is the main work of Nicolaus Copernicus , which wasfirst printedin Nuremberg in 1543. In it he described a mathematical and natural-philosophical model according to which the planets, including the earth, move around the sun and the earth rotates around its own axis. The work is one of the milestones inmodern astronomy . It is a key work of the Copernican turn .

History of origin

Copernicus had already made his ideas accessible to a small group of experts in the Commentariolus around 1509 . He wrote in it that the mathematical details still had to be worked out.

Around 1512 Pope Leo X put the eventual calendar reform up for discussion. Because the mean length of a year in the Julian calendar was not exactly the same as a solar year, the winter solstice date had shifted ten days over the centuries. The Frauenburg canon Nikolaus Copernicus said that first the astronomical theory had to be corrected before the question of calendar reform could be addressed.

Copernicus held back the De revolutionibus manuscript for a long time. It is believed that he either feared being ridiculed by such an absurd theory or that he felt it was inopportune to reveal such secrets. In 1538 Johannes Schöner and Johannes Petreius commissioned Georg Joachim Rheticus , who was studying in Nuremberg , to visit Copernicus in Frauenburg and persuade him to have his work printed. Rheticus stayed with Copernicus from 1539 to 1541. In 1540 he announced the ideas of Copernicus in advance in the Narratio Prima . Finally he succeeded in persuading Copernicus to print and thus to publish De revolutionibus .

Andreas Osiander added an anonymous foreword to the manuscript, according to which the heliocentric worldview does not have to be either true or plausible, but merely has the benefit of simplifying astronomical calculations. Johannes Kepler unmasked Osiander's "forgery" based on notes in the copy of the Nuremberg astronomer Hieronymus Schreiber . After he died in Paris in 1547, the book about Michael Maestlin reached Kepler.

The first two editions had a print run of 400 to 500 copies, of which about 258 and 290 respectively have survived.

After the first edition in Nuremberg in 1543 by Johannes Petreius , a second edition was printed in Basel by Sebastian Henricpetri , a relative of Petreius', in 1566 , with little changes. Nicolaus Reimers (Raimarus Ursus) made the first German translation in 1587 in Kassel for the instrument maker Jost Bürgi , which has been preserved as a so-called Graz manuscript . Brahe and Kepler knew this too. In 1617 a third edition was published in Amsterdam by Nicolaus Mulerius .


Page from the manuscript

Copernicus wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium expressly not for a general group of scholars, but exclusively for mathematicians and astronomers. A quote from his work reads "Astronomy is written for astronomers", and on the title page is the alleged motto of the Platonic Academy Ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω (Ageōmétrētos mēdeìs eisítō) , which means: "Without knowledge of geometry, nobody should enter."

At that time it was believed that the planets and the sun were on spherical shells that revolved around the earth. Copernicus found that the assumption that the planets, including the earth, are on spherical shells that revolve around the sun allows an easier understanding of the observed planetary positions.

This model provides an immediate understanding of the retrograde motion of the planets and the fact that Mercury and Venus never move further than 28 ° and 48 °, respectively, from the Sun. It requires the assumption that the earth is a sphere that rotates around its axis once a day.

The Pope Paul III. dedicated work consists of six parts.

In the first part he outlines the heliocentric worldview in broad outline and modifies the Aristotelian natural philosophy where it contradicts it.

According to Copernicus, the universe consists of eight concentric spherical shells ("spheres"), in the center of which the sun is motionless. The outermost shell is also motionless and contains the fixed stars. The planetary spheres are arranged around the sun in the order Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. The moon orbits the earth and the apparent movement of the celestial bodies around the earth is actually caused by a rotation of the earth around its own axis.

Copernicus attributed the fact that objects fall towards the earth to the fact that particles of matter combine naturally to form bodies.

Copernicus explained that no star parallax was known by stating that the fixed stars were at least twenty times more distant from the earth than had previously been assumed. What Copernicus could not explain, however, was the fact that falling bodies are obviously not left behind by the rotating and moving earth.

In the remaining five parts, Copernicus formulates the mathematical calculation methods that result from the assumption of heliocentrism. Copernicus takes into account the deviations of the observed planetary orbits from the circular orbits through auxiliary circles and eccentricities like Ptolemy in his Almagest . According to Copernicus, the sun is not exactly in the middle of the circles, but slightly offset. Overall, the formalism presented in volumes two to six is ​​so complex that one cannot speak of a simplification compared to Ptolemy.

The second part is a basics section that describes the principles of spherical astronomy and includes a star list. The third part deals with the apparent movements of the sun, the fourth with those of the moon. Finally, the last two parts deal with planetary motions.

In the medieval tradition, the work is permeated with magic and mysticism. The following quote is often quoted:

“In the middle of all, however, the sun has its seat. For who would want to place it as a lamp in this magnificent temple in a different or even better place than there, from where it can illuminate the whole thing at the same time? After all, some quite appropriately call it the lamp of the world, others the world spirit, still others its guide, Trismegistus calls it the visible God, the Electra of Sophocles the all-seeing. Sitting on a royal throne, as it were, the sun directs the celestial family that encircles it. […] Meanwhile the earth receives from the sun and is blessed with annual fruit. "

- Chapter 1.10


Second edition, Basel 1566
Third edition, Nicolaus Mulerius , Amsterdam 1617

Contemporary reception

It is believed that Copernicus feared being ridiculed and losing reputation for his theory, and that is why he waited so long to publish it. This assumption is based on the following quote, among other things:

"Even if there will be empty babblers who, although they are ignorant of any mathematics, nevertheless presume to judge them, should dare to reproach and denigrate this my project because of some wrongly twisted passage in the Holy Scriptures, so I don't care about them, but rather despise their judgment as shameful. It is not unknown that Laktanz, a famous writer in other respects but not particularly a mathematician, speaks childishly about the shape of the earth when he mocks those who have taught that the earth is spherical. Therefore, educated people need not be surprised if such people make fun of us too. Mathematics is written for mathematicians ... "

- To the most holy Lord, Pope Paul III.

Owen Gingerich has dealt extensively with the actual history of its effects .

The book was received with interest among scholars and the new perspective found numerous followers. Erasmus Reinhold used the calculation methods specified by Copernicus to create the Prutenic Tables , which contributed a lot to the recognition of Copernicus as an astronomer, as they were often somewhat more precise than the outdated Alfonsine Tables . For contemporaries, this was particularly evident in the ephemeris , which were calculated from these tables and which were important for astrological predictions. They were used both in the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, in which Christoph Clavius ​​was in charge and in which Copernicus' determination of the length of the year was especially important, and by seafarers. Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler developed the Copernican worldview further. Since Kepler's discoveries, De revolutionibus as the basis for new astronomical research was outdated.

Theologians rejected the new view of the world because it contradicted the Bible in some places. In this context, a table speech by Martin Luther is often quoted, who, according to a common translation, called Copernicus a "fool" who claims an absurd idea of ​​the movement of the earth, which the Bible passage Joshua 10: 12-13 would oppose.

Luther was hardly interested in Copernicus and his views, in contrast to his colleague Philipp Melanchthon , who was interested in astronomy because of its importance for astrology. When he first became aware of the Copernican doctrine, he wanted the authorities to intervene against this “licentiousness of spirits”, but later weakened his criticism. For example, he continued to maintain good relationships with his student Rheticus and Erasmus Reinhold's Prutenic tables were also made in Wittenberg, where Reinhold was a professor. Because of the rejection of the interpretation, but not the mathematical work of Copernicus, in the Wittenberg Protestant circles, the science historian Robert Westman also spoke of a "Wittenberg instrumentalist interpretation" of the Copernican doctrine. The Protestant pastor Osiander, a confidante of Melanchthon who supervised the printing of the book in Nuremberg, felt compelled to insert an anonymous foreword in this sense, but clearly recognizable as not coming from the author. Copernicus' confidante Tiedemann Giese complained in letters to Petreius and Rheticus in 1543 about this outrage, which must be punished. The true author was still known to Kepler; Later, however, this was forgotten and astronomers from the 17th century saw this as a sign of the timidity of Copernicus, who in his actual introduction to his main work in the passage cited above, on the contrary, requested protection from the Pope against annoying, scientifically uneducated critics.

On the part of the Catholic Church, the Dominican Giovanni Maria Tolosani (1470 / 1–1549) took the view that Copernicus' views contradicted the Bible and were therefore heretical . The Spanish Augustinian Diego de Zuñiga (1536-1598?) Put 1584 in his Job -Comment In Job Commentaria is that certain passages would result in a sense only on the assumption of a moving earth. In the 1597 published Philosophia Prima Pars , however, he was convinced of the impossibility of a moving earth. The official church was initially not active.

Only when Galileo Galilei advocated the heliocentric worldview did the Inquisition, under the direction of Robert Bellarmin, deal with the work. He considered it dangerous to place the human mind above divine power and the wording of the Bible, as long as it was not proven that the Bible was wrong. However, it was a letter published in 1615 by the Carmelite theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini (1565-1616), in which this Copernicus' view of the world with the views of the Church tried to reconcile, which led to De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in a decree of March 5 1616 was suspended by the Index Congregation. In 1620 the Index Congregation requested twelve corrections to the work, in the sense that the hypothetical nature of the theory was emphasized. If these corrections were made, the use of the work was still allowed. This requirement was particularly effective in Italy; libraries north of the Alps mostly left their copies unchanged. Many astronomers in Italy - u. a. Clavius ​​and Riccioli - favored the newer Tychonic world model , in which the sun, orbited by planets, moves around the earth.

Modern reception

First German-language edition, 1879

On September 11, 1822, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided "that the printing and publication of works which, according to the common opinion of modern astronomers, deal with the motion of the earth and the standstill of the sun, are permitted in Rome". Pope Pius VII ratified this decision a fortnight later. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium only disappeared from the list of forbidden books with the new edition of the list in 1835.

In the 19th century historical interest in Copernicus' work increased. In 1854 a splendid edition was published in Warsaw at state expense, with a parallel Polish translation of the main work, some letters and other works, as well as the real foreword by Copernicus, which was taken from the manuscript. The name Mikołaj Kopernik was also used in preparation for the Polish translation. In a review, this foreword was translated into German and the entire work was praised, but it was criticized that the author of the preface wanted to “completely vindicate Copernicus to the Pole”. The Torinensis in the title of the original edition was also changed to Torunensis , corresponding to the modern Polish name of the city of Thorn. The local Coppernicus Association chose Thorunensis in the title of the edited Latin edition published for his 400th birthday in 1873, in which the original manuscript was taken into account for the first time. The first complete German translation was done in 1879 by Karl Ludolf Menzzer .

Rheticus had only had one copy available as a basis for printing. Copernicus bequeathed the original manuscript to Tiedemann Giese. From this it came to Rheticus. Valentin Otho brought it to Heidelberg, where Jakob Christmann signed it , and Comenius bought it in 1614. After the turmoil of the Thirty Years' War it was in the library of the Counts of Nostitz- Rieneck in Prague . It was evaluated in the 19th century and the original preface in particular was extracted. After the nationalization of this library, it was first moved to the state museum library from 1945 to 1956. After settling Czech-Polish differences, Czechoslovakia transferred the manuscript to the Polish state in 1956, which has since kept it in the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow , where Copernicus once worked at the Had studied Krakow Academy .

In 1999, the original manuscript was in the list of UNESCO - world cultural heritage added.

A copy of the first edition of the book was auctioned at Christie's in New York in 2008 for $ 2.2 million. It is therefore one of the most expensive and valuable books .


Modern German editions

  • Nicolaus Copernicus: About the circular movements of the world bodies . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1959. (German translation of the first book with notes by A. Birkenmajer )
  • Nicolaus Copernicus. Das neue Weltbild , Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1990 (Latin text of the first book with a German translation and comments by HG Zekl, also contains the Commentariolus and the letter against Werner )
  • Menso Folkerts (Ed.): Nicolaus Copernicus Complete Edition . Volume III / 3: De Revolutionibus. The first German translation in the Graz handwriting. Critical Edition. edit by Andreas Kühne, Jürgen Hamel. De Gruyter, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-05-004355-5 .

Older German editions

  • Nicolaus Coppernicus from Thorn: About the circular movements of the cosmic bodies. Translated and annotated by Dr. CL Menzzer. Thorn 1879.

To the reception

Web links

Wikisource: About the circular motions of the world bodies  - (German translation by CL Menzzer, 1879)

Supporting documents and comments

  1. Late Latin revolutio "rotation", literally "rolling back"; first technical term in astronomy: orbit
  2. J. Hamel: Nicolaus Copernicus , Spektrum Akademischer Verlag 1994, p. 246.
  3. ^ Copernicus's Book University of Cambridge, Department of History and Philosophy of Science
  4. Owen Gingerich localized all remaining editions and wrote his book The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus about them . New York, Walker 2004
  5. ^ University Library Graz, manuscript catalog, catalog no.560
  6. Nicolaus Copernicus Complete Edition : De revolutionibus: the first German translation in the Graz manuscript [1]
  7. Jürgen Hamel: The astronomical research in Kassel under Wilhelm IV. With a scientific partial edition of the translation of the main work of Copernicus 1586 (Acta Historica Astronomiae; Vol. 2). Thun, Frankfurt am Main: Harri Deutsch Verlag 1998; 2., corr. Edition 2002, 175 pp., ISBN 3-8171-1569-5 (1st edition), 3-8171-1690-X (2nd edition), content: HTML PDF
  8. "I am at least of the opinion that gravity is nothing else than a natural striving implanted in the parts by the divine providence of the world master, by virtue of which they form their unity and wholeness by joining together to form a sphere. ", see also footnote in: About the circular motions of the world bodies. 1879
  9. Thomas Kuhn: The Copernican Revolution , Vieweg 1981, p. 175 summarizes: The Copernican system is neither simpler nor more precise than the Ptolemaic , and its methods seem to be just as unable to provide a single consistent solution to the planetary problem as the Ptolemaic methods
  10. Jürgen Hamel, Thomas Posch (Ed.): About the revolutions of the heavenly circles . Volume 300 of Ostwald's Classics of Exact Sciences, Harri Deutsch Verlag, 2008, ISBN 978-3-8171-3300-0 , p. 51.
  11. Jürgen Hamel, Thomas Posch (Ed.): About the revolutions of the heavenly circles . Volume 300 of Ostwald's Classics of Exact Sciences, Harri Deutsch Verlag, 2008, ISBN 978-3-8171-3300-0 , p. 19.
  12. In this context, Gingerich speaks specifically of a better prediction of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1563, which attracted the attention of contemporaries. Both Brahe (in a statement on incorrect predictions from both tables for the time of the equinox in 1588 for the Duke of Mecklenburg, Dreyer Brahe , Edinburgh 1890, p. 155) and Kepler, however, made negative comments on both tables. Based on the much more precise observation material that Brahe had compiled over decades, Kepler said in 1610 that an astronomer who relied on the old tablets must be a bad observer (J. Hamel, Kopernikus , p. 259).
  13. Copernicus had also been asked by the Vatican (Paul von Middelburg) to comment, which he also issued around 1516 in the sense that further research would be necessary (J. Hamel, Kopernikus , p. 149). He also comes up with this in his main work.
  14. “The fool wants to reverse the whole art of astronomy! But as the Holy Scriptures indicate, Joshua called the sun stand still and not the earth ”, quoted from: Luthers Tischreden , editor JG Walch, vol. 22, Halle 1743, p. 2260, corresponding to the oldest Aurifaber edition, Eisleben 1566. In the Weimar edition of 1916 a slightly different version is published, based on the diary entries of the “ear witness” Lauterbach and in which only that astrologer is mentioned (the texts are partly in Latin). In the 19th century, as part of the Prussian Kulturkampf, this was used by the Catholic side to portray Luther as an opponent of the Copernican doctrine. But Luther does not comment on Copernicus anywhere else in his work, and here only incidentally without naming his name. Andreas Kleinert therefore speaks of a "tangible historical lie". Andreas Kleinert: A palpable historical lie. How Martin Luther was made the opponent of the Copernican world system. In: Reports on the history of science . Volume 26 (2003), 2, pages 101-111 ( doi: 10.1002 / bewi.200390032 ).
  15. ^ Westman The Melanchthon circle, Rheticus and the Wittenberg interpretation of the copernican theory , Isis, Vol. 66, 1975, p. 165
  16. ^ Victor Navarro Brotons: The Reception of Copernicus in Sixteenth-Century Spain: The Case of Diego de Zuniga . In: Isis . Volume 86, Number 1, 1995, pp. 52-78.
  17. Jump up Lettera sopra l'opinione de 'pittagorici, e del Copernico, della mobilità della terra e stabilità del sole . Lazaro Scoriggio, Naples 1615.
  18. ^ Maurice A. Finocchiaro: The Galileo Affair: A documentary History . University of California Press, 1989, ISBN 0520066626 , pp. 148-150.
  19. Felix Schmeidler: Commentary on “De revolutionibus” . In: Heribert M. Nobis, Menso Folkerts (Ed.): Nicolaus Copernicus Complete Edition . Volume 3, part 1, Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-05-003123-9 , pp. 186-187.
  20. J. Hamel, Nicolaus Copernicus , Spektrum Akademischer Verlag 1994, pp. 279 ff.
  21. ^ Karl von Gebler: Galileo Galilei and the Roman Curie . JF Cotta'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart 1876, p. 380 (online)
  22. ^ A new edition of the works of Copernicus , in: Conversations in the Fields of Astronomy, Geography and Meteorology , No. 25, Wednesday, June 24, 1857, pp. 185 ff.
  23. Vindicating (Latin), claiming something for yourself or another, demanding the surrender of a thing. - Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon, Volume 20. Leipzig 1909, p. 176.
  24. , accessed February 10, 2012
  25. Kopernikus: Altes neue Weltbild auctioned , Focus online, June 18, 2008, accessed on November 28, 2013