Editions of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus

In 1953 Haverford College purchased a first edition of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus for the Philips Collection. William Pyle Philips had left his collection of rare books to the library as well as an endowment to purchase additional books for the collection. Over the years, the library has added significant works to the Philips Collection. In 1953, they decided to spend $2,750 on a that first edition of De Revolutionibus:

Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus
Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus

This was an extraordinary purchase in various senses. The library understood this to be a special book and was willing to spend quite a lot on it. Tution that year was $675—so the library spent more than four times the tuition on a single book (imagine the library spending $190,000 on a book today!). Another way to look at it: in today’s dollars, that $2,750 would purchase a little more than $24,000 dollars worth of book.

In order to get a better sense of this book, I have been extracting information from Owen Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Initially, I wanted to know how the annotations in this copy compare to other. Gingerich describes them as:

There are some underlinings and a few brief annotations in two old hands at the beginning of f. 10v, again at the beginning of book V, and very scattered marks in [books] II and III.

The annotations range from references to classical poetry to more technical notes. In book I an early reader added a reference to the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.
Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.

In book V the notes seem more focused on astronomy, jotting in the margin planetary data and making reference to the following tables of data (which also include scattered marks):

Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.
Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.

As I am working through Gingerich’s Census, I’ve started to think about other questions, such as: How many times did De Rev change hands? How much did it move around? Did copies of De Rev concentrate in certain cities? So now I’m pulling out of Gingerich’s book the following information:

  • Edition and number (just the number in the Census)
  • Number of owners (based on provenance listed in the Census)
  • Cities where owners have lived (based on provenance notes)

So far I’ve made it a little more than half way through the Census. The information is the Census is not complete so these numbers offer a qualitative picture rather than a quantitative one. That said, I think they suggest general trends. Plotting this information gives the following:

Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev
Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev

It seems copies of De Revolutionibus don’t move around much. More than half of the first editions and two-thirds of the second editions can only be traced to a single city.[1] A wholly unsurprising pattern of ownership, with most being owned by a just a few people.[2]

Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.
Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.

I have begun putting together a heat map showing where copies of De Revolutionibus have concentrated. Note, the cities listed are not necessarily a copy’s current location. Rather, these cities reflect the various places owners have lived when they had a copy of De Revolutionibus.[3]

Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.
Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.

You can play with this heat map on this page:
De Revolutionibus Heat Map.
You can change the gradient color (I think the blue is easier to see). Because this heat map is a Google maps overlay, you can pan and zoom as you like.

It’s too early see what this tells me about our copy of De Revolutionibus. Perhaps when I finish going through the Census I’ll be able to say something.


  1. N.B., that these numbers reflect the positive identification of a city in the provenance notes, i.e., cities where owners have lived. They do not reflect the cities copies passed through in the hands of rare book dealers or auction houses.  ↩

  2. Again N.B., these are owners who are identified in the provenance section. There are surely some owners who left no evidence of ownership and, consequently, do not appear in the provenance section. Further, Auction houses and rare book dealers are not counted as owners.  ↩

  3. Yet another N.B., these cities surely under record the places owners have lived. Moreover, these concentrations do not reflect the fact that often more than one owner lived in the same city. So, for example, two different owners in Wittenberg are not counted as a single instance in Wittenberg. This was an artifact of how I started pulling information out of the Census.  ↩

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