Copernicus in Context

Nicolaus Copernicus

A statue of Copernicus.
Copernicus Monument in Toruń, Poland. Uploaded to Pixabay by BadziolTV.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born February 19, 1473 and died May 24, 1543. Copernicus‘ most important contribution to astronomy is his heliocentric model of the solar system that placed the Sun at a fixed point in the center, and depicted the planets orbiting the Sun. In this model, Earth was just another planet. The model explains apparent retrograde motion by comparing the relative orbits of Earth and other planets.

Copernicus’ heliocentric model inspired astronomers such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton to develop similar theories and models about planetary orbits and the solar system. Moreover, the posthumous publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus is typically regarded as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

Heliocentric Model with circular orbits.
Copernican Heliocentrism in De Revolutionibus. Derivative work by Professor Marginalia. uploaded to Wikipedia Commons. 2010.

What else was going on in the world while Copernicus was developing his heliocentric model of the solar system?

The Spanish Inquisition

Monty Python surprises unsuspecting heretics with the Spanish Inquisition.
Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition. Added by LexsJB to the Monty Python Wiki.

On November 1, 1478, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition to promote hegemonic Catholicism throughout Spain. The Inquisition prosecuted heretical Jewish conversos and Islamic converts to Catholicism. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, which expelled Jews to reduce their influence on conversos. The Inquisition’s rise and fall reflects the growing fears of religious diversity, increased secularism, Christian reformations, and religious warfare. The Spanish Inquisition disbanded in 1834.

The Ninety-Five Theses

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of Wittenberg Churches, beginning the Catholic Reformation. Martin Luther, a monk-turned-priest-turned-scholar-turned-professor of theology, wrote the Theses in response to what he perceived as sinful practices by the Catholic Church. Luther admonishes the practice of buying and selling indulgences, which the clergy claimed could allow a remission of sin. In addition, Martin Luther dismisses the concept of Papal Supremacy, especially in regards to penance and to souls in Purgatory.

A drawn mural of Martin Luther. The words "Luther war hier" appears to the side.
Facade of Martin Luther. Uploaded to Pixabay by Hansbenn.

The Theses sparked great debate within the Catholic Church. Luther’s simple writing and the reproduction of his works via the printing press facilitated the growth of Catholic Reformation movements. The Ninety-Five Theses set the stage for long-lasting religious, social, and political changes in Europe.

Hernán Cortés

Cortés was born in 1485 and died on December 2, 1527. Cortés was a Spanish Conquistador. He was famous for exploring the New World and defeating the Aztec Empire.  In 1519, and against the orders of his commanding officer, Velázquez, Cortés commanded an expedition to colonize the Mayan and Aztec territory of Mexico. Cortés convinced native peoples to ally against Moctezuma II, leader of the Aztecs. To prevent his men from escaping to Cuba, Cortés reportedly scuttled his own ships. With reinforcements, thousands of native allies, and a long siege on Tenochtitlan in 1521, Cortés destroyed the Aztec capital and declared victory for Spain. Cortés’ expeditions reflect the successes of colonialism and the establishment of new European trade routes in the New World. The fall of the Aztec Empire illustrates the destructive capacities and lasting impact European colonialism has on native peoples, landscapes and cultures. As for Cortés, all he wanted was a fancy title, land holdings, and treasure.

A picture of the impressive Templo Mayor at the Aztec Site.
Templo Mayor at the site of Tenochtitlán, Mexico. Uploaded to Pixabay by

Learning in Context: a reflection

In many textbooks, we learn about the history of topics with a similar theme. For instance, we might take a class on philosophy and science and learn about the Enlightenment. A class on colonialism might teach the Age of Exploration. We might take a class on the Scientific Revolution, or the Catholic Reformation. In each of those classes, we would learn about different historical figures and events.

But the ages listed above all happened at the same time. Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Shakespeare. Nostradamus, Galileo, and Copernicus. Bacon, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Luther, Xavier, and Calvin. Nobunaga, Ivan the Terrible, and Charles V. Every single person on this list lived in the 16th century and helped shaped the ideas and history of the time.

We often learn about history in these isolated themes. We should remember that the history of astronomy, for instance, cannot be severed from the history of art, religion, politics. All these histories are interwoven.


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  • Innes, Ralph Hammond. 1 January 2019. “Hernán Cortés”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, inc.
  • Luther, Martin. “The 95 Theses”. 1517. Translated and published in 1997. KDG Wittenberg.
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  • Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. “Copernican Heliocentrism”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Last revised 28 January 2019.
  • Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. “Hernán Cortés”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Last revised 4 January 2019.
  • Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. “Nicolaus Copernicus“. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Last revised 29 January 2019.