Servetus in France, 15321553


    Soon after the publication of his Dialogues on the Trinity in 1532, Servetus finding himself friendless, penniless, and in imminent danger of trial for heresy, left Basel and was no more heard of for twenty-one years.  As Germany and Switzerland had grown too hot to hold him he next went to France, and in order the better to conceal himself he dropped his name of Servetus and adopted that of his early home, and thus became Michel de Villeneuve (Michael Villanovanus).  We first find him in Paris, perhaps disheartened for a time over his failure as a religious reformer, and studying mathematics at the University for some two years, while he became so proficient that presently he was giving university lectures on the subject.  In this period he met the young Calvin, who was now becoming prominent in the Reformation, and was later to bring him to the stake.  He challenged Calvin to a public debate on religious subjects, and the meeting was arranged for; but in the end Servetus failed to appear — why, we do not know, though he may well have shrunk from the danger involved in a city where every day heretics were being burned at the stake.

    Want of money now forced him to interrupt his studies, and he therefore went to Lyon (Lyons), which ranked next to Paris as a publishing center, and here for over two years he was employed by a famous publishing house as corrector of proof, which was then a common occupation for scholars.

    In this capacity Servetus served as editor of a new edition of Ptolemy’s celebrated Geography, which the recent explorations in the New World had made necessary.  This work was enriched by many pungent notes, and one of these, which spoke of Palestine as a very poor country for a “promised land,” afterwards brought him into trouble as a defamer of Moses.  His work on the proof of several medical works, however, opened to him a new field of interest, and brought him influential acquaintances in the medical world, so that having replenished his purse he returned to Paris and became a student of medicine.

    Servetus remained in Paris about four years, studying under the most distinguished physicians and anatomists of the age.  He won the praise of one of his masters as almost unrivalled in his knowledge of medicine, wrote a little book on digestion which was so popular that it ran through five editions in France and Italy, and at length he was graduated as Doctor of Medicine.1  In the course of his studies he made a discovery which renders him forever distinguished in the history of physiology.  He discovered that it is through the lungs that the blood passes from the right to the left side of the heart.  Yet he evidently did not appreciate the importance of the discovery, or else was pre-occupied with another theme, for he never referred to it at all except to use it as an incidental illustration in a theological work not published until fifteen years later; and since this work (as we shall see) never got into circulation, his great discovery remained buried and unknown for a century and a half, until long after Harvey and others had made the discovery again.  At the solicitation of his friends Servetus gave public lectures at the University on geography and astrology, which were attended by large numbers.

    Astrology was still in good repute, and the line was not sharply drawn between that and meteorology.  Theologians like Melanchthon believed in it and practiced it, and kings and princes had their court astrologers whom they consulted before any important undertaking.  In his lectures and in a published pamphlet on the subject, Servetus took occasion to make disrespectful remarks about the medical scholars of the time, charging them with ignorance for neglecting this important subject, and calling them a plague of the world.  His colleagues in the faculty were furious, and had him haled before the Inquisitor on a charge of heresy.  When he was acquitted of this, they prosecuted him before the Supreme Court for advocating the practice of divination, which was forbidden on pain of death by fire.  The Court ordered Servetus to withdraw his pamphlet, to pay his colleagues more respect, and to cease lecturing on the subject.  But he had now had enough of academic life, and so he left Paris and entered upon the practice of medicine.

    There are rumors of his having wandered rather widely for a time, but at length he settled down at Charlieu, near Lyon, and for a year or so practiced his profession with such success as to arouse the envy of his competitors, who caused him to be assaulted one dark night as he went to visit a patient.  He was now invited, however, by the Archbishop of Vienne, who had known him in Paris, to become his private physician and to occupy a dwelling in his own palace, and thus about 1540 he entered upon ten or twelve peaceful and happy years, the longest quiet period of his adventurous and troubled life, during which he acquired fame and fortune as a physician, and at the same time pursued the studies he loved.  For in this period, along with his duties to the sick, to whom he showed great devotion during the plague of 1542, he continued to correct proof for various works, and brought out a new edition of Ptolemy which he softened down some of the notes that had given offense before, but above all edited a celebrated edition of the Bible.  A Dominican monk, Sante Pagnino, had a few years before made a new translation of the Bible into Latin, which was highly esteemed for its excellence; and as he had now died, the publisher employed Servetus to edit a new edition, and to supply it with a preface and notes.  In doing this he laid down some startling new principles of interpreting Scripture, and in applying them to the Psalms and Prophets he showed that many passages supposed to be predictions of Christ really refer in the first instance to the writer’s own time though in their full meaning they may also look forward to Christ.  He thus anticipated the modern higher criticism of the Old Testament by two-hundred and fifty years; but at the time these notes gave great offense, and the Catholics put them on their Index of forbidden books, while Calvin later made them the basis for a part of the charges which brought Servetus to his death.

    It was perhaps this new study of the Bible that revived his old interest in theology, and the quiet and leisure of his life at Vienne now enabled him again to cultivate it.  Enthusiastic dreamer that he was, he felt that the whole world might still be won to that view of Christianity which seemed to him so much more simple and scriptural than the one current in the churches; and though fifteen years ago he had failed with the Swiss and German reformers, Calvin had now come to the fore in Geneva, and was the most influential figure in the Protestant world.  Servetus became obsessed with the idea that he might convert Calvin; and so, finding a go between in one Frellon, a publisher of Lyon for whom Servetus had done literary work and who knew them both, he opened correspondence by asking Calvin three questions as to Jesus the Son of God, the kingdom of Christ and regeneration, and baptism.  The correspondence began on the plane of courtesy, but it soon degenerated into coarse abuse and invective.  Servetus was writing with the purpose of showing Calvin his errors, and he begged him to give up as unscriptural his belief in that great and impossible monster of three beings in one, and talked down to him as to an inferior.  Calvin had now so long been practically dictator at Geneva that he had come to expect respectful deference from all who approached him, and although always ready to teach was little inclined to be taught.  His patience was soon at an end; and as he found Servetus greatly lacking in humility, after a few letters he broke off the correspondence, and in place of writing more he sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes to which he referred him as a true statement of the Christian faith.  Servetus later returned this with offensive criticisms scribbled all over the margins.  Calvin took this as a personal insult.  “There is not a page,” he said, “that he has left free from his vomit.” Servetus continued for two years to pursue Calvin with letters, to the number of thirty, and did not scruple to call him a reprobate, a blasphemer, a Jew, a thief, and a robber.  Calvin was equal to the occasion, and referred to Servetus’s letters as the braying of an ass.  Nothing daunted, Servetus then sent Calvin the manuscript of a book he had lately written, seeking thus again to draw him into argument over the views it expressed.  Calvin read the manuscript, but refused to answer it, and paid no heed to Servetus’s repeated requests for its return.  Still hoping to convert Calvin, Servetus next offered to go to Geneva and discuss the questions with him in person, if only assured of safe conduct; but Calvin would give no pledge: instead he wrote to his friend Farel, pastor at Neuchatel, that if Servetus came, and his own influence amounted to anything, he would never allow him to get away alive.  Having failed with Calvin, Servetus next tried to draw out his fellow reformers, Poupin, pastor at Geneva, and Viret, pastor at Lausanne.  To the former he wrote, “In place of one God you have a three-headed Cerberus, in place of faith you have a fatal dream, and good deeds you call worthless pictures”; and then, as if with a premonition of his fate, he added, “That I must die for this cause I know full well, but for all that I have good courage, if only I may become a disciple like the Master.”

    Having now failed in all quarters to make any impression, Servetus again felt driven to publish his views for wide reading, and he was the more strongly impelled to do this because he was convinced by a passage of Scripture2 that the kingdom of Antichrist (the Papacy) was to come to an end in 1585, and he had the conviction that he himself was the Michael who it was foretold was to put the great dragon under his feet.  A Basel printer friend of his to whom Servetus offered the manuscript dared not print it, but at length after much difficulty, and by paying a large bonus, he got it printed in great secrecy in a vacant house in Vienne, of course with no indication of place, printer, or author; though he could not resist the temptation to put his own initials at the end, and to insert his name in several places in the text.  This work was entitled The Restoration of Christianity (Christianismi Restitutio).  About half of it consisted of a recast of Servetus’s two earlier books on the Trinity, to which he now added his thirty letters to Calvin, and an address to Melanchthon, making in all a book of over 700 pages.  It contains Servetus’s plan for a more thorough and complete reformation of Christianity than the Protestant reformers had attempted.  Though its thought is more developed, it does not essentially differ from the earlier works; but it is harsher than before, and while holding a position something between Catholics and Protestants it is especially bitter toward the reformers, while it violently attacks the traditional doctrine of the Trinity with every weapon to be drawn from reason, history, or Scripture.  It is in this book that Servetus describes the circulation of the blood referred to above.

    This work was printed early in 1553, a thousand copies of it.  They were sent in bales to Lyon, where they were to be held until they could be put on sale at the Easter fairs there and at Frankfurt, the great book markets of northern Europe. Frellon, probably not foreseeing the consequences of his act, at once sent a copy to Calvin, who could easily see from a comparison of it with the manuscript which Servetus had sent him, that both were from the same author.  It would never do to let such heresy be sown over Europe, to say nothing of the disrespect shown himself in the letters the book contained; and Calvin was quick to act.  Now it happened that he had a neighbor and confidential friend, one Guillaume Trie, a Protestant refugee from Lyon, who was still in correspondence with a Catholic relative there.  To him Calvin related what he knew of this new book and its author.  Trie at once wrote to his Catholic relative (it is hard not to believe that this was done with Calvin’s knowledge and approval, for he had himself previously denounced Servetus to the Archbishop of Lyon as a heretic), saying to him that there was a heretic in his vicinity who deserved to be burned alive for blaspheming the Trinity and uttering other dreadful heresies; that his name was Michael Servetus, though he now called himself Villeneuve; and that he was living at Vienne as a physician.  To clinch the matter he enclosed the first four sheets of the Restitutio.  It came out as Trie (and Calvin) desired.  The letter soon reached the hands of the Inquisitor.  Steps were cautiously taken, Servetus was summoned before the authorities and questioned, and his lodgings were searched.  The printers were likewise examined; but no evidence could be found, and the accused were all discharged.

    Trie was then written to for further proof of what he had charged, and he produced it nothing loath, Calvin assisting.  He forwarded a number of letters which Servetus had written to Calvin and marked confidential, and the copy of the Institutes with Servetus’s notes on the margin, and later on also the manuscript book which Servetus had sent Calvin some years before.  The judges examined these, found the evidence convincing, and caused Servetus to be arrested and brought before them.  After artfully leading him on through questions as to his former life and writings and meeting with some evasion, the judges at length laid before him the letters written in his own hand which he could not well deny, but signed Servetus, thus identifying the Dr. Michel de Villeneuve before them with the notorious heretic Michael Servetus.  Realizing that he was cornered, and grasping at any straw that might save him from death, he made an artful equivocation, which, however, did not deceive his judges.  Before the examination was concluded the court adjourned for the night.  That evening Servetus sent his servant from the prison to collect a large sum of money owing to him, and the next morning at daybreak he made his escape from prison — as was generally believed, not without connivance on the part of influential friends.  When his escape was discovered, he was already well out of reach.  The trial went on without him, and dragged on for ten weeks.  The printers were discovered, and bales containing 500 copies of the book were found at Lyon.3  Servetus was found guilty of heresy and various related crimes, and was condemned to be burned to death by a slow fire, along with his books.

    It was not the custom in those times to put off the execution of a capital sentence simply because the condemned could not be found.  An effigy of Servetus was therefore made that very day, and after being first duly hanged, was burned, together with his books, in the public square, whereat perhaps every one was well enough satisfied save the Inquisitor — and Calvin.  The trial had been by the civil court.  The ecclesiastical court now proceeded to do its duty in trying Servetus on its own account. Two days before Christmas it too found him guilty of heresy, and again ordered his books to be burned.  But it was too late.  Servetus had already met his fiery fate at Geneva two months before.  How he came thither will be told in the next chapter.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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