Nicolaus Koppernigk was born in Poland in 1473 and grew up in Torun. Nicolaus’s father, also Nicolaus Koppernigk (the elder), was a successful merchant, a trader of copper goods. The town of Torun snaked along the Vistula River in Poland where most citizens spoke German and was populated by 20,000 industrious citizens, which made the area a cultural center and a town with a bustling river trade. Nicolaus had many opportunities to enjoy various cultures, learning from the sailors and merchants in the lively port city.
His father died when he was 10 and his uncle Lukasz Watzenrode, an important man and a Catholic bishop in Warmia, raised Nicolaus. Because of his uncle’s standing, Nicolaus received a rigorous education and learned Latin, the language of scholars and the educated.
At 19, Nicolaus enrolled in the University of Krakow –the finest institution of its time and the highest academia in all of Eastern Europe. He excelled in mathematics and astronomy. During this time, Nicolaus Latinized his surname name to Copernicus to fit in with this cosmopolitan city.
Nicolaus’ thoughts were already turning heavenward and he studied the Alfonsine Tables and the Tables of Directions, both fundamental texts for astronomers. In 1494, Copernicus left Krakow and took up the obligation of church duties bequeathed him. His uncle probably saw it as a way for his nephew to acquire a steady economic future, but soon after, he headed to Italy for a degree in canon law—church law—at the University of Bologna.