Was Copernicus Polish or German? Was He Even a Man!?

The disputed identity of the famous Medieval monk, scholar, astronomer, manager, and economist was made clear after the recent exhumation of his supposed tomb.

copernicus on jan matejko painting
"Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God." A painting by Jan Matejko, 1873. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, in Frombork Cathedral, now a part of Poland, bones were excavated. They had been deliberately buried there in the 16th century under the floor of the cathedral near one of its altars. And the excavation site – burial site, mind you – was as far from accidental as it gets. The altar in the early 16th century was the “workplace” of one quite well-known priest. You might have heard the name: Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer that coined heliocentric theory, but also man of many talents.

DNA proves the burial site of Copernicus

Further analysis confirmed that the bones could be identified by DNA as belonging to one person. Moreover, the mtDNA matched one of the two human hairs found in a book/calendar currently on display in Sweden that was the property of none other than… Nicolaus Copernicus. So, yeah, we’ve got him. With all scientific ado – all of the speculation and uncertainties – we may feel free to say that we have Copernicus’s remains, which have now been quite well analyzed.

It’s high time, too, so that we can resolve a few mysteries, myths, and propaganda that have surrounded this great scientist. You see, the whole problem with Copernicus is the greatness of his research, which cannot simply be dismissed. He’s the guy who “invented the solar system,” credited with putting the planets in the order that reflects the best actual distribution of cosmic forces around the earth – which is known as heliocentric system, as opposed to geocentric one, putting earth in the middle.

Simply put: he put the sun in the center, sidelining Earth, which had formerly been considered the most important place in the whole universe, as a birthplace of humans and God’s creation.

Copernicus, a church manager

He was also what you may call a church manager, working a range of administrative jobs in the Warmian diocese. He also formulated the economic law stating that “bad money drives out good,” or, as the saying goes, “a bad penny always turns up.”

With all these and some minor achievements, every nation wanted to claim him as their own. Now: Copernicus’s family originated in Silesia, which ethnic and cultural identity is split between its own, German, Polish and Czech ethnicities. Having moved north, his family came to – similarly disputed – Warmia, now in northeastern Poland and formerly part of the Teutonic order state.

He wrote mostly in Latin and spoke perhaps mostly in German, but maybe also some local dialect or Polish – when talking to commoners. He signed his name in the Latin form – as Nicolaus Copernicus. However, even the origins of his name are hotly contested, with Poles and Germans seeing roots of his surname (incidentally, taken from the name of the ancestral village from where his great-grandfather hailed) in their own languages.

So, was Copernicus German or Polish?

Feeling dizzy? That’s what we thought. He would probably feel dizzy, too, seeing these two neighboring countries vying to claim him. The debate remains to this day, even as more and more facts are unearthed. Enough said that when the Germans occupied Warsaw during World War Two, they left his monument in the city center – where it still sits to this day. However, they made one small alteration: they changed the nameplate to read that he was a great German astronomer. On 11 February 1942, a Polish resistance scout (and hero), Aleksy “Aleks” Dawidowski, famously removed the plate in secrecy.

But that’s just one time that Copernicus’ identity was questioned in recent history. As many portraits of the astronomer remain, some have argued that his facial features were somewhat effeminate, leaving just a shadow of a doubt that he might have been a woman in disguise.

Jokingly, it was proliferated in Juliusz Machulski’s 1984 Polish sci-fi comedy “Seksmisja” (‘Sexmission’). In the movie, two men take part in a hibernation experiment that goes awry. They wake, many years later than expected, in an all-female dystopian underground authoritarian regime, which has rewritten human history to blame men for all the world’s evils and credit women for all progress. That’s when our two men learn that: “Copernicus was a woman!”

Whatever the case, in 2005, Poles, somewhat confused if this “Copernicus was a woman” stuff was serious or not, received final confirmation: there was a Y (male) chromosome in the bone samples that matched the hair samples from the book owned by Copernicus’ as well, and physiological features follow. As per nationality? Well, contrary to hope, it’s not evident in the genes.

Copernicus’ mtDNA is a rare variant found mostly in Germany, and data from the Y chromosome narrows the region down to… Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechia. Which doesn’t bring us any closer to an answer. But at least we do know that he likely had a light iris color. So that’s something.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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