Nicolaus Copernicus and a Question of Nationality

If you read German and Polish history books, both claim Nicolaus Copernicus as their own. They make him part of their national identity. The question remains unresolved as there are points to be made for both views. But was nationality really an issue?

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473 in the city of Toruń as the son of Nicolaus Koppernigk and Barbara Watzenrode; the city is situated in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship of modern Poland. In 1473, the city was called Thorn (in German); it was a member of the Hanseatic League. Until 1466, it had been part of the independent state of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Chełmno Land (Kulmerland in German).

In the 9th century, Chełmno Land was inhabited by a mixture of Baltic and Slav people which had displaced the Old Prussian inhabitants since the 8th century. In the 10th century, the Dukes of Masovia had started to conquer the area. By 1065, it was considered part of the Duchy of Masovia but its inhabitants remained Baltic and Slav until the 13th century.

The Dukes of Masovia were among the leading aristocrats in the Lithuanian-Polish Empire and involved in the regular wars of succession as contenders for the throne. At the beginning of the 13th century, their treasury was empty and their armies needed in Poland. The pagan Old Prussians exploited the situation and entered Chełmno Land. They conquered it, tore down the castles, burnt the cities and villages (and all churches), and slaughtered or abducted the inhabitants into slavery.

In 1228, Duke Conrad I of Masovia called in the Teutonic Knights and granted them Chełmno Land as a dependent Duchy and part of Masovia (as to Polish history books); or he called them in to conquer and to hold independently (as to German history books); the original treaty is missing. For good measure, Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and Pope Gregory IX each granted them Prussia including the Chełmno Land, too, under condition that they convert the pagan Old Prussians by the sword if necessary. The latter two documents still exist.

The Teutonic Knights moved in and conquered all of Prussia and the Chełmno Land. The Old Prussians chose the sword over conversion to Christianity and were slaughtered wholesale as true martyrs to the faith; today we would call this genocide or ethnic-religious cleansing. After slaughtering men, women, children, and babies indiscriminately, the Teutonic Knights called in German settlers to do the dirty work and repopulated the whole province. The first two cities founded were Chełmno (Kulm) and Toruń (Thorn) in 1233. The population started out German, but soon Baltic and Slav people drifted in as there was land to spare and opportunities galore.

At the end of the 14th century, the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights had opposing commercial interests. The Prussian member cities of the Hanseatic League entered into an alliance with Poland to further their interests. A first war was ended in the peace treaty of Thorn in 1411. A second war ended in 1466 in the second treaty of Thorn. In the latter treaty, the Teutonic Knights lost large tracts of land including Thorn to the Polish crown. The new entity was called Royal Prussia. It was not part of the Lithuanian-Polish Empire but with the Empire formed the Polish Commonwealth. It was held and governed in personal union by the King of Poland.

Nicolaus’ father was also called Nicolaus. The family name was spelled as Koppernigk; it is considered possible that the family name meant that they had come at some time from the Silesian village Koperniki in the Oppole Voivodeship in modern Poland. The region of Silesia had a history as tortuous as Toruń's minus the Baltic influence and changed hands several times over from one Kingdom to the next. Nicolaus Koppernigk had moved from Cracow to Thorn between 1454 and 1458. But citizens going by the same family name had been on record in Thorn before that. He married a patrician’s daughter, Barbara Watzenrode, and they had four children. 

Does any of this answer the question of Copernicus' nationality? Contrariwise, I would say. If the family originated from Koperniki, they could have come of Silesian, Slav, Polish, or German stock or any mixture thereof. Father Koppernigk's move from Cracow to Thorn would insinuate Polish ethnic origins, while mother Watzenrode would point to German ancestors on that side. The situation is a draw. Nicolas spoke Polish and German, which is again a draw. And finally, nationality wouldn't have meant anything to Copernicus as it was an invention of the 19th century.

Further reading