1902 Encyclopedia > Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus
(also known as: Miguel Servet; Miguel Serveto)
Spanish theologian and physician
(1511-53)




MICHAEL SERVETUS, or MIGUEL SERVETO (1511-1553), physician and polemic, was born in 1511 at Tudela in Navarre (according to his Vienne deposition), his father being Hernando Villanueva, a notary of good family in Aragon. His surname is given by himself as Serveto in his earliest works, " per Michaelem Serueto, alias Reues." Later he Latinized it into Servetus, and even when writing in French (1553) he signs "Michel Seruetus." It is not certain that he was related to his contemporary Andres Serveto of Aniiion, the Bologna jurist; but it is probable that he was of the same family as the Spanish ecclesiastic Marco Antonio Serveto de Reves (d. 1598), born at Villa-nueva de Sigena in the diocese of Huesca (Latassa, Biblio-teca Nueva, 1798, i. 609). Servetus, who at Geneva makes " Villeneufve " his birthplace, fixes it in the adjoining dio-cese of Lerida, in which there are three villages named Vilanova. Having apparently had his early training at the university of Saragossa, he was sent by his father to study law at Toulouse, where he first became acquainted with the Bible (1528). From 1525 he had found a patron in Juan de Quintaha (d. 1534), a Franciscan promoted in 1530 to be confessor to Charles V. In the train of Quintana he witnessed at Bologna the coronation of Charles in February 1530, visited Augsburg, and perhaps saw Luther at Coburg. The spectacle of the adoration of the pope at Bologna had strongly impressed his mind in an anti-papal direction. He left Quintana, and, after visiting Lyons and Geneva, repaired to Olcolampadius at Basel, wdience he pushed on to Bucer and Capito at Strasburg. A crude, but very original and earnest, theological essay, De Trinitatis Errori-bus, printed at Hagenau in 1531, attracted considerable attention; Melanchthon writes " Servetum multum lego." It was followed in 1532 by a revised presentation of its argument. We next find Servetus at Lyons, in 1535, as an editor of scientific wrorks for the printing firm of Trechsel, under the name of Michel de Villeneufve or Michael Villa-novanus, which he used without interruption till the year of his death. Here he found a friend in Dr Symphorien Champier (Campegius) (1472-1539), whose profession he resolved to follow. Accordingly he went (1536) to Paris, where he studied medicine under Johann Giinther, Jacques Dubois, and Jean Fernel. It was in 1536, when Calvin was on a hurried and final visit to France, that he first met Servetus at Paris, and, as he himself says, proposed to set him right in theological matters. As assistant to Giinther, Servetus succeeded the famous anatomist Ves-alius ; Giinther, who pays the highest tribute to his general culture, describes him as specially skilled in dissection and " vix ulli secundus " in knowledge of Galen. He gradu-ated in arts and asserts that he also graduated in medicine, published a set of lectures on syrups (the most popular of his works), lectured on geometry and astrology, and de-fended by counsela-suit brought against him (March 1538) by the medical faculty on the ground of his astrological lectures. In June 1538 we find him at the university of Louvain (wdiere he was inscribed on the roll of students as Michael Villanova on 14th December 1537), studying theology and Hebrew, explaining to his father (then resi-dent at San Gil) his removal from Paris, early in Septem-ber 1537, as a consequence of the death (8th August) of his master (el señor mi maestro), and proposing to return to Paris as soon as peace was proclaimed. After this he practised medicine for a short time at Avignon, and for a longer period at Charlieu (where he contemplated marriage, but was deterred by a physical impediment). In Septem-ber 1540 he entered himself for further study in the medi-cal school at Montpellier. In 1541 he resumed editorial work for the Lyons booksellers, to whose neighbourhood he had returned.

Among the attendants upon his Paris lectures had been a distinguished ecclesiastic, Pierre Paulmier, since 1528 archbishop of Vienne. Paulmier invited Servetus to Vienne as his confidential physician. He acted in this capacity for twelve years (1541-53), and made money. Outwardly he conformed to Roman Catholic worship ; in private he pur-sued his theological speculations. It is probable that in 1541 he had been rebaptized. He opened a correspondence with Calvin, and late in 1545, or very early in 1546, he forwarded to Calvin the manuscript of a revised and en-larged edition of his theological tracts, and expressed a wish to visit him at Geneva. Calvin replied on 23d Febru-ary 1546, in a letter which is lost, but in which, he says, he expressed himself "plus durement que ma coustume ne porte." On the same day he wrote to Guillaume Farel, " si venerit, modo valeat mea autoritas, vivum exire nunquam patiar," and to Pierre Viret in the same terms. Servetus had fair warning that if he went to Geneva it was at his peril. In his letter to Abel Pouppin (in or about 1547), after stating that he had failed to recover his manuscript from Calvin, he says, " milii ob earn rem mori-endum esse certo scio." The volume of theological tracts, again recast, was declined by a Basel publisher in April 1552, but an edition of 1000 copies was secretly printed at Vienne. It was finished on 3d January 1553; the bulk of the impression was privately consigned to Lyons and Frankfort, for the Easter market. But on 26th February a letter, enclosing a sheet of the printed book, and revealing the secret of its authorship, was written from Geneva by Guillaume H. C. de Trye, formerly éehevin of Lyons, to his cousin Antoine Arneys in that city. This letter bears no sign of dictation by Calvin; the history of De Trye shows that it may have been instigated in part by personal ill-feeling towards the Lyons booksellers. But Calvin furnished (reluctantly, according to De Trye) the samples of Servetus's handwriting enclosed in a subsequent letter, for the express purpose of securing his conviction





The inquisitor-general at Lyons, Matthieu Ory, set to work on 12th March; Servetus was interrogated on 16th March and arrested on 4th April. Under examination his defence was that, in correspondence with Calvin, he had assumed the character of Servetus for purposes of discussion. At 4 A.M. on 7th April he escaped from his prison, evidently by connivance. He took the road for Spain, but turned back in fear of arrest. How he spent the next four months is not known; Calvin believed he was wandering in Italy; the idea that he lay concealed in Geneva was first started by Spon. On Saturday 12th August he rode into Louyset, a village on the French side of Geneva. Next morning he walked into Geneva, and ordered a boat, to take him towards Zurich on his way for Naples. He was recognized that day at church and immediately arrested. The process against him lasted from 14th August to 26th October, when sentence "estre brusle tout vyfz " was passed, and carried out next day at Champel (27th October 1553). Calvin would have had him beheaded. Meanwhile the civil tribunal at Vienne had ordered (17th June) that he be fined and burned alive; the sentence of the ecclesiastical tribunal at Vienne was delayed till 23d December. Jacques Charmier, a priest in Servetus's confidence, was condemned to three years' imprisonment at Vienne. The life of Servetus is full of puzzles; his writings give the impression not only of quick genius but also of transparent sincerity; they throw, however, little light on the mysterious parts of his story. Don Pedro Gonzalez de Velasco (see his Miguel Servet, 1880) has placed a statue of Servetus in the porch of the Instituto Antropologico at Madrid.

The opinions of Servetus, marked by strong individuality, are not easily described in the terms of any current system. His anabaptism, with his denial of the tripersonality of the Godhead and of the eternity of the Son, made his views abhorrent to Catholics and Protestants alike; while his intense Biblicism, his passionate devotion to the person of Christ, and the essentially Christocentric character of his view of the universe give him an almost unique place in the history of religious thought. He is sometimes classed with the Arians; but he endorses in his own way the homoousian formula, and speaks contemptuously of Arius as "Christi gloriae incapacissimus." He has had many critics, some apologists {e.g., Postel and Lincurius), and few followers. The fifteen condemnatory clauses, introducing the sentence of Servetus at Geneva, set forth in detail that he had been found guilty of heresies, expressed in blasphemous language, against the true foundation of the Christian religion. It is curious that one instance of his injurious language is his employment of the term "trinitaires" to denote " ceux qui croyent en la Trinité." No law, current in Geneva, has ever been adduced as enacting the capital sentence. Claude Bigot, the procureur-général, examined Servetus with a view to show that his legal education must have familiarized him with the provisions of the code of Justinian to this effect; but in 1535 all the old laws on the subject of religion had been set aside at Geneva; the only civil penalty for religion, retained by the edicts of 1543, was banishment. The Swiss churches, while agreeing to condemn Servetus, give no hint of capital punishment in their letters of advice. The extinct law seems to have been arbitrarily revived for the occasion. A valuable controversy followed, on the question of executing heretics, in which Beza (for), Mino Celsi (against), and several caustic anonymous writers took part.

The works of Servetus are not so rare as is often supposed, but the most common are his earliest, in which he approaches nearer to the position afterwards taken by P. Socinus than he does in his more matured publications. The following is an enumeration of them in the order of their appearance. (1) De Trinitatis Erroribus Libri Septem, 1531, 16mo. (2) Dialogorum de Trinitate Libri Duo, 1532, 16mo; four chapters are added on justification and kindred topics. These two books have been twice reprinted and manuscript copies are common; a Dutch version, by Reynier Telle, was published in 1620. (3) Claudii Ptolomaei Alexandrini Geographicae Enarrationis Libri Octo: ex Bilibaldi Pirckheymeri translatione, sed ad Graeca et prisca exemplaria a Michaele Villanovano jam primum recogniti. Adjecta insuper ab eodem scholia, &c., Lyons, (Melchior & Caspar Trechsel), 1535, fol.; 2d éd., Lyons (Hugo à Porta), 1541, i.e., 1542; printed by Caspar Trechsel at Tienne, fol.; on this work Tollin founds his high estimate of Servetus as a comparative geographer; the passage incriminated on his trial as attacking the authority of Moses is an extract from Lorenz Friese. (4) Brevissima Apologia pro Symphoriano Campegio in Leonardum Fuchsium, 1536, 12mo; no extant copy is known; Tollin has reprinted an extract from it. (5) Syruporum Universa Ratio, &c, Paris, 1537, 16mo; there were four subsequent editions, the last being Venice, 1548 (six lectures on digestion, the composition and use of syrups being treated in the fifth lecture). (6) In quendam Modicum Apologetica Disceptatio pro Astrologia, Paris, 1538, 16mo; reprinted, Berlin, 1880 ; the medicus is Jean Tagault, who had interrupted the lectures of Servetus on astronomy, under which he included meteorology. (7) Biblia Sacra ex Santis Bagnini Trala-tione . . . recognita, et scholiis illustrata, &c., Lyons (Hugo à Porta), 1542, fol., remarkable for its theory of prophecy, explained in the preface and illustrated in the notes. (8) D'Artigny says that Servetus "fit les argumens" to a Spanish version of the Summa of Aquinas; but nothing is known of this or of the "divers traités de grammaire " which he translated from Latin into Spanish. (9) Christianismi Restitutio, &c, 1553, 8vo (perfect copies in Vienna and Paris, an imperfect copy in Edinburgh), partly reprinted, London, 1723; 4to (copies in London and Paris), reprinted 1790; 8vo, by Rau at Nuremberg for De Murr, from the Vienna copy ; manuscript copies are rare ; the Paris library has a manuscript copy of an earlier recension of several books, including the often-quoted description of the pulmonary circulation. This work is often called anonymous, but the initials M. S. V. are given at the end and the full name at p. 199 ; the volume is not a single treatise but an assemblage of theological tracts written in a nervous and epigrammatic style and with great command of very various learning ; the Apologia addressed to Melanchthon, with which it concludes, is in the writer's best manner. Two treatises, Desiderius (ante 1542) and De Tribus Impostoribus (1598), have been erroneously assigned to Servetus. Of his few remaining letters most will be found in Mosheim.





The literature relating to Servetus is very large, but the following are some of the most important pieces. Calvin's Defensio Orthodoxœ Fidei, &c., 1554, 4to (also in French, Déclaration pour maintenir, &e., 16mo, same date), is the source of many prevalent misconceptions respecting the opinions of Servetus and his attitude on his trial. De la Roche's Historical Account, &c, in Mem. of Lit., 1711-12 (reproduced in French, Biblioth. Angl., Amsterdam, 1717,18mo), was followed by An Impartial History, &c, 1724, 8vo (said to be by Nathaniel Hodges, a Baptist minister, afterwards knighted). Allwoerden's Bistorta, &c, 1728, 4to (materials furnished by Mosheim), is superseded by Mosheim's Anderweitiger Versuch, &c, 1748, 4to, with its appendix, Neue Nachrichten, 1750, 4to, issued after the publication of the records of the Vienne trial by D'Artigny, in Nouveaux Mémoires d'Hist., &c, vol. iL, 1749, 12mo. Chaufepié's valuable article in Nouv. Diet. Historique, vol. iv., 1756, fol. (translated separately by Rev. James Yair, 1771, Svo), makes no use of Mosheim's later researches. Trechsel, in Die prot. Antitrinitarier vor F. Socin, &c, bk. i., 1839, Svo, uses all available materials up to date. Since then the investigations of H. Tollin (published in a series of some forty separate articles in various journals from 1874 to 1885) have thrown light on every portion of the subject. The records of the Geneva trial, first published by De la Roche, and reproduced in Rilliet's Relation, &c., 1844, Svo, and elsewhere, are best given in vol. viii. (1870) of the edition of Calvin's works by Baum, Cunitz, and Reuss; Roget, in Hist. du Peuple de Genève, vol. iv., 1877, has a good account of both trials. The passage describing the pulmonary circulation is first noticed by W. Wotton, in Reflections upon Ancient and Mod. Learning, 1694, and has given rise to a literature of its own;—see especially Tollin's Die Entdeckung des Blutkreislaufs, &c, 1876, Huxley, in Fortnightly Rev., February 1878; and Tollin's Kritische Bemerkungen über Harvey und seine Vorgänger, 1882. Other physiological speculations of Servetus are noted by Sigmond (The Unnoticed Theories of Servetus, 1826) ; but it has escaped Sigmond that Servetus had an idea of the composition of water and of air. As a thinker, Servetus is claimed on superficial grounds by Unitarians (see Wallace, Antitrin. Biog., 1850, i. 420), who have written several accounts of him, of which R. Wright's Apology, &c, 1807, 8vo, is the worst, and J. S. Porter's Servetus and Calvin, &c, ÌS54, 8vo, perhaps the best. Saisset, in Rev. des Deux Mondes, 1848, treats Servetus as a pantheist; he is followed by Willis, in his Servetus and Calvin, 1877, 8vo, a most unsatisfactory book (comp. Theol. Rev., April and July 1878). Tollin's Das Lehrsystem Michael Servet's, 3 vols., 1876-78, 8vo, and Punjer's compendious De Michaelis Serveti Doctrino; &c, 1876, 8vo, are valuable digests of his opinions, from different points of view. Of Servetus's personal character the best vindication is Tollin's Characterbild Michael Servet's, 1876, 8vo (in French with additions by Dardier, Portrait Caractère, 1879, 8vo). His story has been dramatized by Max Ring, Die Genfer (1850), by José Erhegaray, La Muerte en los Labios (1880), and by Albert Hamann, Servet (1881). The recent discovery at the Record Office, London, (U. 140) and the British Museum (Cotton MSS., Galba B, x.) of intercepted letters from Servetus at Louvain in 1538 adds considerably to our information about his family and early friends, but introduces new problems as to the details of his fitful career. (A. GO.)


The above article was written by: Rev. Alex Gordon, M.A.



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