This year it 550 years since Nicolaus Copernicus – surely Poland’s greatest and best-known scientist – was born in Poland in 1473.

Copernicus concluded that the Earth revolves both on its own axis and around the sun. This world view is called ‘heliocentric’, as opposed to the ‘geocentric’ world view that had previously predominated, which conceives of the sun as revolving around the Earth. Heliocentrism had existed as an idea in earlier times, for example in Classical antiquity, but Copernicus made observations and calculations and presented the proofs in his book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. One hundred years later, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei reached the same conclusion – but that’s another story.

Copernicus collection a treasure

The reason why contacts between Poland and Uppsala University have multiplied in connection with the jubilee is that the largest collection of books associated with Copernicus is in Uppsala University Library.

“We have 46 books in the Copernicana Collection. Some of them are books that he owned and studied, others books that were available to him and that he is highly likely to have studied. Several books contain notes and sketches made by Copernicus. The collection is one of our treasures,” says Peter Sjökvist, Docent in Latin and librarian at Uppsala University Library.

At present, several of the books in the Copernicana Collection are on loan to Poland for various exhibitions in connection with the jubilee.

Copernicus died in 1543, the same year that his revolutionary book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” was published. It was written in Latin and the original title is “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”.

Breakthrough for a new worldview

Uppsala University Library is displaying some books in a temporary exhibition about Copernicus and the Copernicana Collection. Photo: Anders Berndt.


One question that has been discussed is how great an impact “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” had on Copernicus’s contemporaries. Historian of science and astronomer Owen Gingerich has investigated this matter, partly by examining all surviving copies of the first and second editions of the book that he has been able to find.

“There are many notes in the margins of the surviving volumes, which indicates that the book was actively read by his contemporaries and that the readers thought about the content. The study really demonstrates the importance of looking for traces of earlier users in the physical books.”

Taken as booty

How did this collection come to Uppsala University? As so often in history, it is a case of booty taken in war.

“Copernicus held a position as canon in the cathedral in Frombork and when he died in 1543, his books ended up in the chapter library.”

Frombork is on the Baltic coast in what is now Poland, close to the border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Just over 80 years after Copernicus’s death, the city of Frombork surrendered to Gustav II Adolf in July 1626 during the Thirty Years’ War. The Swedes seized the entire chapter library as booty and the books were taken first to the Tre Kronor castle in Stockholm, where they were catalogued by Johannes Bureus. Gustav II Adolf subsequently donated the books to Uppsala University Library, which he personally had founded a few years previously, in 1620–21.

Collection identified by Polish researchers

To begin with, all books were shelved in the University Library by subject. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the books associated with Copernicus were gathered together to create the Copernicana Collection, after Polish researchers had identified the books.

“The usual procedure was to sort books by subject rather than keeping collections of books intact. It was really only in the late 20th century that research on the previous owners of books, or provenance research, became more common.”

Books inspire respect

Uppsala University has two copies of “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”, one of them a copy with notes by Copernicus’s closest disciple, Joachim Rheticus.

Many of the books in the Copernicana Collection are incunabula. This is the term generally used for the first printed books from the infancy of printing, from Gutenberg’s Bible in 1455 up until 1500. The word ‘incunabula’ is originally Latin and means ‘beginnings’, or literally, ‘in the cradle’. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarsson.


“Handling these books inspires a feeling of tremendous respect. If you have the least interest in history, it’s quite incredible to read and handle the same books that Copernicus studied to rewrite our entire view of the world. You don’t get used to handling these books.”

Peter Sjökvist is impressed by the professional skill behind the books.

“You really have to admire the professional skill of the printers. There are very few errors in these books composed by hand with loose type in the conditions prevailing at that time, without electric light, for example.”

Handle with care

As the books are old and have been handled by many people over the years, they inevitably show various signs of wear. For instance, many books obviously once had clasps that have been removed at some time.

Needless to say, the staff handle the books with tremendous care. They are generally only shown to special groups, even though in principle all books can be ordered for research in the library’s special reading room.

“All the books are also digitised to make them easily accessible to researchers and anyone else who is interested, so we primarily refer users to the digitised versions.”

Digitisation does not answer all the questions

Although digitisation is of course a good way to minimise the wear and tear on the books, sometimes digitisation does not suffice to answer all the questions to which a researcher might want an answer. Anyone who finds cleaning a chore may perhaps find some consolation in the following story.

As noted before, Copernicus died in Frombork and was reportedly buried in the cathedral there. However, there is scant information about where he was buried and his grave had no inscription. Moreover, Swedish soldiers hunting for items of value desecrated many graves in Frombork during the Thirty Years’ War.

A group of archaeologists began to search for his grave in 2004. Using ground-penetrating radar, they managed to identify a number of graves below the floor of the cathedral. They dug up several graves and looked for the skull of a 70-year-old. Having found a suitable skull, they made a reconstruction of the person’s head with the assistance of forensic experts. The reconstruction matched portraits of Copernicus well.

DNA analysis helps identification

However, this was not sufficient to prove the case, and this is where Uppsala University re-enters the picture. Göran Henriksson, then working at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Uppsala University, suggested looking for material, such as human hair, that might be in the books that Copernicus had used. Ten hairs were found in a book by Johannes Stöffler, Calendarium Romanum magnum (1518). Researchers had previously linked the book to Copernicus by comparing a letter that Copernicus had written with notes in the book. Professor Marie Allen’s research group at the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology at Uppsala University compared DNA from the hairs with bone tissue from the exhumed skeleton from the cathedral. Two of the hairs had the same profile as the remains from the cathedral.

In combination, this was taken as proof that the remains of Copernicus had been found and a new burial was conducted in Frombork Cathedral in 2010.

This time with a clear inscription.