Beware the Rheticus’s prophecy!

Prophecies were ‘bestsellers’ not only in the Middle Ages but also in early modernity. More than year ago I started to work on a commentary to the edition of the manuscript copy of Jan Latosz’s Przestroga (A Warning), the only surviving witness to this astrological and chronological dissertation published in Cracow in 1595. At some point I had to postpone my work as I encountered a puzzling passage which required some time to solve it.

Tu na tym miejscu zdało mi się przypomnieć prognosticon zacnego onego Doktora Rhetykusa, które prawie in ore omniu[m] jest, bo wszytkim w Polszcze wiadome, które ponieważ ex parvis initiis i dosyć słabego gruntu swój początek wiedzie, gdyż ex simplici interrogatione, a to quaestione swe ma fundamenta takie i tak się iści sprawa, powodzenie jego, począwszy od króla Augusta, królów polskich aż do tego czasu. Cóż rozumieć możemy o tych, które ex causis necessariis naturalibus pochodzą? Prawdziwe być nie mają? Praktyka takowa Retykowa wypełniła się już na trzech królach polskich …


It happened to me here to remind about the prognostication of the good Doctor Rheticus, which is on everyone’s lips and is known to everyone in Poland. Although its origins and ground are modest and weak as it is a result of simple interrogation, it has some foundations and the fates of the kings of Poland starting from the king [Sigismundus] Augustus [predicted in it] happen to fulfil. What should we understand, then, about those which come from the necessary natural causes? Should they be considered true? The Rheticus’s practice has already came true for three Polish kings …


Latosz's reference to Rheticus in a 17th-century copy of his Przestroga of 1595 (MS Warsaw, National Library, 6631 III, fol. 20v, fragment; source: Polona)

Latosz’s reference to Rheticus in a 17th-century manuscript copy of his Przestroga of 1595 (MS Warsaw, National Library, 6631 III, fol. 20v, fragment; source: Polona)

In the next sentence Latosz provided brief characteristics of the first three elective kings of Poland, Henri de Valois, Stephen Báthory and Sigismund III Vasa so it seemed that my astrologer was actually paraphrasing a text known back then as a work of Rheticus. The first book I turned to to check this was Ludwik Aleksander Birkenmajer’s monumental study on Nicolaus Copernicus which is a real treasure trove of Copernicus- and Rheticus-related archival bits and pieces. It turned out that indeed, there is something like Rheticus prognostication on the elective monarchs but the text edited by Birkenmajer and taken from a manuscript miscellany held at the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow seemed to be slightly different from the one Latosz referred to as the latter gave descriptions in different order. Birkenmajer mentioned that there are also some other copies of Rheticus text which are located, among others, in the Ossolineum Library (now divided between Wrocław and Lviv) and in Vatican so I decided to take this lead. Unfortunately, consulting the scans from these libraries made it even worse as these copies also seemed to be substantially different from the samples given by Latosz in 1590s and by Birkenmajer in 1900.

First, I thought it was just a mere accident but then I referred to Karl-Heinz Burmeister’s three-volume thorough account of Rheticus’s biography and works and it turned out that things were even more complicated than I initially thought. Not only these few manuscripts mentioned by Birkenmajer turned out to be merely a drop in the bucket of the corpus of witnesses to Rheticus text but, as it turned out, they had very little in common with the text Burmeister published as the prognostication on the kings of Poland. The piece published by Birkenmajer and those I found in Ossolineum in Wrocław and in Stefanyk National Scientific Library of Ukraine in Lviv were rather laconic in comparison to the elaborate horoscope edited by Burmeister.

Soon I came to realize that all scholars who were referring to Rheticus’s prognostication over the past hundred years were playing a blind man’s buff. Every one of them, after seeing few manuscripts, took for granted that the other copies were pretty much alike so if someone examined a late seventeenth-century simplified copy consisting of schematic list of kings he or she simply assumed that other witnesses, known from catalogue descriptions, are exactly the same. I also suppose that even Burmeister himself did not bother to consult all the manuscripts he included on his list of witnesses as some of the copies from Gdansk were considered lost at the moment when he published his study. However, in one thing Burmeister was right, i.e. in giving the privileged position to the manuscript that is now located in the University Library in Wrocław and which provides the most plausible version of Rheticus’s text. Unlike many other manuscripts related to this prognostication, it contains elements of astrological apparatus, including the precise time for which the horoscope was erected as well as an astrological diagram showing the positions of planets at the moment of interrogation. All these elements together with the elaborate characteristics of kings make it look like a work of a genuine sixteenth-century astrologer. The only tiny problem related to this manuscript is the fact that it comes from the eighteenth, not the sixteenth century…

The most reliable witness to Rheticus's horoscope - MS Wrocław, University Library, Akc. 1949/594, fol. 56v, fragment

The most reliable witness to Rheticus’s horoscope – MS Wrocław, University Library, Akc. 1949/594, fol. 56v, fragment

As much as I wanted to believe that Burmeister made the right choice, there were still few question that required some answers. Why should we believe that the 18th-century manuscript should be treated as a key witness to the tradition of text dating back to the second half ot the 16th century? What happened to the Rheticus’s autograph? What are the origins of the prognostication as such? Is it possible to reconstruct the process of textual transmission from the Wrocław MS to the dwarfed copies I saw at the beginning of my investigation? Finally, what about other texts that appear to be somehow linked to Wrocław MS but their form does not resemble even the dwarfed, simplified copies?

While I have no idea what happened to Rheticus’s autograph the answer to the question about the origin of the Wrocław MS and the prophecy as such seems to be quite plausible. The manuscript used by Burmeister is an 18th-century copy of papers of Andreas Dudithius, Catholic bishop, Antitrinitarian and diplomat in the service of Maximilian II. The original papers were lost at some point but before this happened some local historian aware of the importance of Dudith copied them and surrounded with some factual annotations. As to Dudith himself, his connections with Rheticus are quite well documented. Their paths have crossed in Cracow when the first served as imperial envoy and intelligencer and the latter pursued his career of physician and astrologer and got close to the local centres of power. During their stay in Cracow, Dudith has created a circle of erudites interested in astronomy and Rheticus was one of its members. It is quite possible, then, that Dudith was one of the first readers of the horoscope. Although, as Gábor Almási has shown, Dudith was not very much keen on astrology – in fact, he was rather sceptical about it – he was an experienced politician, so it is also possible that he was the actual originator of the whole astrological enterprise or that he quickly incorporated it into his own political and diplomatic agenda. Even if he wasn’t behind the creation of the horoscope and the prognostication was either made of pure curiosity or commissioned by the royal court, it is quite reasonable to assume that Dudith played a significant role in disseminating the text by means of correspondence and there are some fragments in letters to and from him that clearly show that he introduced some astrological pieces into the Central European information exchange network. Being a representative of the Habsburg emperor in the capital of a country which was about to experience a political change, Dudith must have fell back on all possible means to win favor of Polish nobility and secure the election of the Habsburg candidate to the Polish throne.

As my interest in the history behind the Rheticus’s prognostication grew bigger, I kept looking for some other witnesses to this text and started consulting them, either in person or by means of microfilms and digital copies. Soon it turned out that some of them generally confirm the contents of the Wrocław MS although none of them contained the astrological chart and their astrological layer was heavily corrupted. In the meantime, the pool of manuscripts started to reveal some other curious aspects. For instance, soon it turned out that the prognostication was translated not only into German, what has been noted by Burmeister, but also into Polish and while the German version, most likely linked to the city of Gdansk, was consistent in all copies, the Polish had few very distant variants.

The analysis of these texts did not allow me to reconstruct the precise devolution of the text, from the inextant archetype (substituted by the Wrocław MS) to the most corrupted versions – there were simply too many differences between them to decide which one should be superior to another, especially if they all come from the second half of the seventeenth century and from different locations. The process of collecting all witnesses allowed me instead to do other thing, i.e. to analyse the process of condensation of the original horoscope into the form of a popular prophecy which had very little to do with the text that was authored by the disciple of Copernicus. One of the aspects of this process was the simplification of the text: first, the astrological apparatus was abandoned, then some of the characteristics got abridged, and the latest versions of the prophecy, although their titles still echoed the original horoscope, consisted merely of a list of two- or three-word characteristics of future kings of Poland. Another aspect is the fading memory of Rheticus as the author of the horoscope or, as you like, the elective prophecy. Latosz was able to refer to the author of Relatio prima thanks to the fact he was well aware of the astrological traditions of Cracow and he did this in 1590s, only two decades after Rheticus’s death. But these details must have fell into oblivion or simply seemed irrelevant to the members of nobility who continued to copy this text into their miscellanies until early eighteenth century. When one takes a look at all versions of the title she will immediately notice a long parade of names that have very little to do with Rheticus and one of the late 17th-century copies of the heavily abridged Latin text of the prophecy names ‘some Greek’ as the author, while another copy mentions ‘Doctor Clitricius”. There is some wisdom in it as, up to a point, ‘Rhetici’ and ‘Graecii’ or ‘Clitricii’ sound alike, but this manuscript, like many others, shows that the general astrological provenance of the text and the aura of secret knowledge were much more important to the users of this text than the actual identity of its author.

Rheticus disguised as a Greek in MS Warsaw, National Library, 6647 II, fol. 267v; source: Polona

Rheticus disguised as a Greek in MS Warsaw, National Library, 6647 II, fol. 267v, fragment; source: Polona


Rheticus as ‘Doctor Klitricius’ in the Polish version of the prophecy, MS Warsaw, National Library, 6634 III, fol. 207r, fragment; source: Polona

What is the reason, one might ask, why we should beware the Rheticus’s prophecy? Since the expiry date for this horoscope expired long ago there is nothing to worry about on the astrological level, yet on the scholarly one there is. It is a common problem for all scholars who are trying to stabilize the text to decide when to cease their pursuit of further copies, especially if there is no central manuscript. In result of my chase I managed to collate the Wrocław MS with other witnesses to the longest version of the horoscope, complicating thus basic edition created by Burmeister. I also edited some variants of this text that document other stages of its degeneration and language versions. And in general I feel that the results of my toils are legible and shed some critical light on the to date claims about the Rheticus’s text. Yet, even now, when my two articles on the topic – one discussing the origins of the horoscope and the Dudith’s involvement, the other focused on the manuscript tradition – have been sent to the press and will appear later this year, I keep thinking about other possible copies of the prophepcy that should have been included but I was not aware of their existence. So even if there is nothing baleful in the horoscope as such, studying it may lead to a kind of textual anxiety which may urge one to check compulsively manuscript catalogues in hope of tracing another witness to the text and to keep leafing through hundreds of pages of uncatalogued manuscript miscellanies in search of just one more copy of this incredibly popular text.

A Moment of Wonder: Overlapping Networks

Last Friday, I gave a paper at the 106th Annual Meeting of the Polish Philological Society. A couple months ago, I was very happy to learn that this year’s session’s major theme would be the history of Latin and Greek letter as I have been hoarding a considerable pile of materials for quite a long time and I needed a decent stimulus to get back and start to try making sense out of them. The reason why these notes, transcriptions and scans were so neglected on my hard drive was the fact that they have actually very little to do with the calendrical debates I have been dealing with for the past two years. I gathered these materials back in January 2013 when I was in a kind of doctoral limbo, between the moment of submitting my dissertation for review and the ritual of public defense. I went for a couple of days to Zurich since I wanted to consult in person a particular copy of Nicolaus Hussovianus’s Carmen de bisonte, one of very few that survived and, luckily for me, annotated by Conrad Gessner. I had this tempting idea that by studying one book, or treating it as a kind of lense, or center of possible network of connections I will be able to work my way through at least some part of rich corpus of Gessneriana. The idea of having a look at an early modern polymath and naturalist dealing with information about an exotic, Eastern European animal excerpted from a poetical work and trying to include it into his body of work seemed quite promising and my former faculty was kind enough to support my research for the last time. In Zurich, I examined this and few other volumes annotated by Gessner and had a look at his rich Nachlass – a large collection of loose manuscripts of various kinds, which, taken together, make one of the best physical proofs that the experience of information overload in the sixteenth century was a fact and not only a projection of our contemporary concerns onto the distant past.

An annotated page of Gesner's working copy of his Icones animalium of 1560 (Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, shelfmark NNN 44 | F)

An annotated page of Gesner’s working copy of his Icones animalium of 1560 (Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, shelfmark NNN 44 | F, source:

Two pieces of Gessner’s Nachlass puzzled me in a particular way. These were two clumsy drafts of letters, written by Gessner and, from what I could read, addressed to Johannes Boner, a descendant of German family, nobleman and courtier of king Sigismund I the Old. Boner’s role in the whole history is much bigger than the few remarks I am going to include below but since I am in the middle of reorganizing my Zurich material and still would like to publish a study about my findings, I will jump to the part I am actually sure of and which puzzled and amazed me for the past few months, every time I got back to the ‘Gessner & Hussovianus’ file.

I still have some doubts related to the reading of certain fragments and Gessner’s inclusions and additions do not make it easy to stabilize the texts of these letters (an these two pieces of papers are the only copies known to me – originals on the Polish end apparently did not survive and there is no clean copy of Gessner’s letters in his Zurich papers). Despite these technical difficulties, it is quite clear from the legible fragments that they were conceived as letters of recommendation. The reason why the Swiss polymath wrote these two letters to Boner are quite clear: since they both belonged to the same correspondence network established between Bullinger in Zurich and the followers of Calvinism in Lesser Poland (Polonia Minor), it was quite natural for them not only to exchange views but also to develop their network even further. And here enter two characters: Anton Schneeberger and Georg Joachim Rheticus. Both were disciples of Gessner’s at some point of their education and, quite surprisingly, both ended up in Cracow in the same period: Schneeberger settled there in 1543 and Rheticus arrived only a year later. In this context letters of Gessner, addressed to a prominent Cracow figure, can and should be read as an attempt to clear the way for his two disciples. Although Gessner’s recommendations may seem quite conventional (we encounter praises of learnedness formulated in superlative so many times that we become callous to them), it is important that they apparently brought desired effects: Schneeberger settled in Cracow for good, got married, prospered quite well as a city physician and occasional collector of books, authored a handbook of military medicine, and eventually died there in 1581.

In case of Rheticus, the story is a bit more complicated as Cracow was not his final stop. From the point of view of Gessner’s letters, however, it is extremely important that these two scholars found a safe harbour in Cracow and entered the local intellectual elite. A couple of years ago, at the 2011 “Cultures of Knowledge” conference I listened to a great talk by Tamson Pietsch about the process of establishing the networks of trust among the Australian and UK-based physicists. And while late 19th– early 20th-century exchange between two distant milieus might seemed too modern for an early modernist, Pietsch in her paper provided a highly important point of view and introduced a crucial category of trust as a foundation for collaboration between the centres she studied. Now, after these few years, I believe that the idea of trust was also at play in the epistolary exchange between Gessner and Boner and should be considered as one of the key factors in the process of its development.

It is not the trust, however, which has been making me wonder for the past months, ever since I submitted my abstract. These were the quite unexpected developments within my ongoing project, which made me realize with great force how closely linked are the early modern figures that I study, starting with the Cracow reception of Ramism, through my Gessnerian episode, and up to some chapters in my ongoing research on Central European chronological debates. It was another correspondent of Gessner, a Polish nobleman Jan Łasicki (Joannes Lasicius) who served Peter Ramus as an emissary to Cracow and brought to the university a copy of his Scholarum physicarum libri VIII in 1566 (now, in the collections of Jagiellonian Library there is also a copy of Ramus’s Proemium mathematicum which the author gave to Łasicki a year later). Łasicki was important for the Ramist network as he helped Ramus to establish contact with another highly prominent figure on the early modern intellectual arena, i.e. John Dee. Next, we have the Polish-Swiss network, consisting of numerous names on both sides, with the Gessner’s sub-network as an object of my own study, hopefully to be concluded within a couple of months – this is another network. But the process of unfolding does not end here. When one takes a look for instance at a figure such as Rheticus s/he will realize immediately in how many fascinating directions this may lead him or her, starting with the great figure of Andreas Dudithius, a Catholic bishop and diplomat and later on a Socinian intellectual, through some minor characters that can lead one to another, equally or even more fascinating, corners of respublica litteraria of the 16th and 17th centuries. And what is amazing here is the fact that one can make this transition in few jumps!

Although I was well aware of this fact for quite a while, it struck me with a great force when I started putting together pieces of puzzle I encountered while creating a commentary to Johannes’s Latosinus astrological Warning which I mentioned at the beginning of this year. This idea will be developed in another post which, I think, will be a good occasion to get back and continue ‘the Warning cycle’ (which right now consists of one post, was originally conceived as a diptych but will be developed soon into a trilogy). Right now, I would like to just pin point the fact that we live in truly magnificent times when we can jump from one correspondence network to another. And this would be impossible without the efforts of such excellent teams as those gathered around such projects as the “Cultures of Knowledge” project in Oxford, the Dutch ePistolarium or the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” at Stanford, just to name the few. These projects make visible things that could escape one’s attention without the tools they provide, i.e. the fact of overlapping of certain networks and the very basic yet crucial fact that the center of one epistolary network is an element or branch of another, and the center of the second web of correspondents may be (and surely was) an element of epistolary circle of the third, fourth, nth corresponding intellectual or public figure of other kind. This, indeed, gives us a powerful tool for the study of early modern intellectual history and for understanding it as a cluster of dynamic systems and subsystems of personal and intellectual relations.

At this point, my confessions about the importance of networks may sound banal and I am sure I am basically preaching to the already converted but if you want to find out how did this work in case of Rheticus, stay tuned as the continuation of ‘the Warning cycle’ is coming!

Dies natalis

Even if I would really want to avoid him – because he is simply too big for me, because everything had been already written on him, name all possible reservations you want – he comes out from nearly every corner I visit. Starting from the writings on calendar reform, to the mid-sixteenth-century obscure astrological manuscripts I studied recently, to even more obscure chronological manuscripts I have studied for the past year and am going to study for a while longer, to the marginalia of a bunch of Central European scholars who are important for me due to their activities at the intersection of astronomy and history – there is always a 99% chance that I will end up with him. Everything – at least in my scholarly world – seems to revolve around him. Well, I should have seen this coming.

I guess you already know who that is. And since he was born on February 19, 1473, as his reader and a citizen of Toruń since 2013, I can’t say nothing else but: Happy birthday, old chap, we’re gonna spend some time together.

As a birthday card, for obvious reasons of greater interest to modern readers than to Copernicus himself, I would like to present a page from Astronomia instaurata, the third, 1617 edition of De revolutionibus, prepared by Nicholaus Müller’s and published in Amsterdam. Here we come back to Joannes Broscius and his annotations. Broscius used all three early modern editions, the Nuremberg 1543 edition, which belonged actually to the university, the Basel 1566 one and the Astronomia instaurata, and all of them bring some interesting materials on the reception of Copernican ideas in Kraków (as well as the way Broscius incorporated Copernicus’s claims into his own research). If you have access to the famous Owen Gingerich’s Census (which nowadays seems to be more rare than Copernicus), you can check it on your own and/or have a look at the digitized Nuremberg edition at the Jagiellonian Digital Library (and when you get bored with Broscius’s notes, check out the Jag. Lib. MS 10000 – the autograph of De revolutionibus!). As to the birthday card: Broscius, as a vigilant reader and one of the first biographers of Copernicus simply decided to join the discussion about Copernicus’s date of birth and the annotation’s he left on the first page of Müller’s Life of Copernicus testify that.

Kraków, Jagiellonian Library, shelfmark Mag. St. Dr. 311204-311205 II

Kraków, Jagiellonian Library, shelfmark Mag. St. Dr. 311204-311205 II

P.S. In one of my tweets I sent earlier this month I included a photo of a title page of Rheticus’s Narratio prima.

This copy belongs to the Copernicus House Museum in Torun and from the annotations it is clear that this reader of Rheticus confused his date of death. In the light of the discussion’s summarized by Müller and notes left in Rheticus, it seems that Copernicus and early Copernicans were out of luck as far as the daiting of their lives was concerned…

P.P.S. Those of you who are still hoping to read part 2 of the new cycle on the manuscript of Jan Latosz I inaugurated in January, rest assured it will appear shortly. I am still buried in the edition and creating commentary and as soon as I dig myself out, I will be able to tell something more (and general) about the MS. As for now, I can say it is even more interesting now than it was when I read it for the first time and it has some Copernican elements too!