Copernicus’ Writings about Money

Historical context

Best known for his work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in which he presented the heliocentric theory of the universe, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) from Toruń was a real Renaissance man. He practised medicine and, apart from astronomy, was also engaged in mathematics – he was the author of several works on economic, financial and administrative issues. The works were written in 1516–1532 and were directly connected to Copernicus’s duties as a member of the Warmia chapter in Frombork that included, for example, the administration of chapter’s goods. His works reflected, however, not only the practice of administration but also his scientific interest in economy, primarily monetary issues. 

At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, the monetary system descended into chaos that was caused by the dynamic process of the debasement of coinage related to, for example, the lack of precious metal in Europe. In his Writings about Money (1526) which were dedicated to the causes of the deterioration of money, the decrease of its purchasing power and social and political consequences of this process, Nicolaus Copernicus made a distinction between the face and intrinsic value of a coin.

Moreover, he stated that if there were two coins with a similar face value in circulation, the coin that had the highest quantity of the precious metal would be supplanted and accumulated. As a result, only the worse coin would remain on the market. Hence, the principle that explains this process, “bad money drives out good”, which, in the economy, is called the Gresham–Copernicus law. Copernicus also noted that “bad money” could have a negative influence on the economy of the whole country and even lead to its fall.

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