Nicolaus Copernicus/Archive 1 - Nationality


There has been discussion of Copernicus' nationality and of whether, in fact, it is meaningful to ascribe to him a nationality in the modern sense.

Historian Michael Burleigh describes the nationality debate as a "totally insignificant battle" between German and Polish scholars during the interwar period.

Polish astronomer Konrad Rudnicki calls the discussion a "fierce scholarly quarrel in... times of nationalism" and describes Copernicus as an inhabitant of a German-speaking territory that belonged to Poland, himself being of mixed Polish-German extraction. Rudnicki adds that Martin Luther, an opponent of Copernicus' theories, regarded him as Polish and referred to him as a "Sarmatic fool". (At the time, "Sarmatian" was a term for a nobleman of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland.)

According to Czesław Miłosz, the debate is an "absurd" projection of a modern understanding of nationality onto Renaissance people, who identified with their home territories rather than with a nation.

Similarly historian Norman Davies writes that Copernicus, as was common in his era, was "largely indifferent" to nationality, being a local patriot who considered himself "Prussian".

Miłosz and Davies both write that Copernicus had a German-language cultural background, while his working language was Latin in accordance with the usage of the time. Additionally, according to Davies, "there is ample evidence that he knew the Polish language." Davies concludes: "Taking everything into consideration, there is good reason to regard him both as a German and as a Pole: and yet, in the sense that modern nationalists understand it, he was neither."

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Copernicus as a "child of a German family was a subject of the Polish crown", while others note that his father was a Germanized Pole. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, The Columbia Encyclopedia and The Oxford World Encyclopedia identify Copernicus as a "Polish astronomer".

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