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Michael Servetus

Michael ServetusAKA Miguel Serveto

Born: c. 1511
Birthplace: Tudela, Navarre, Spain
Died: 27-Oct-1553
Location of death: Champel, Switzerland
Cause of death: Execution

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Religion, Doctor

Nationality: Spain
Executive summary: De Trinitatis Erroribus

Physician and polemic, born in 1511 at Tudela in Navarre, his father being Hernando Villanueva, a notary of good family in Aragon. His surname is given by himself as "Serveto" in his early works, "per Michaelem Serveto, alias Reues." Later he Latinized it "Servetus"; when writing French (1553) he signs "Michel Seruetus." It is probable that he was of the same family as the Spanish ecclesiastic Marco Antonio Serveto de Reves (d. 1598), born at Villanueva de Sigena in the diocese of Huesca. At this place is the traditional mansion of the family, and in the parish church the family altar with the family arms. Servetus at Geneva makes Villanueva his birthplace, assigning it to the adjoining diocese of Lerida. His later adopted surname, Villanovanus or de Villeneufve, was no mere pseudonym since he followed his father's example. Of his education we only know that his father sent him to study law at Toulouse, where he first became acquainted with the Bible (1528). From 1525 he had found a patron in Juan de Quintana (d. 1534), a Franciscan promoted in 1530 to be confessor to Charles V. In the train of Quintana he witnessed at Bologna the double coronation of Charles in February 1530, visited Augsburg, and perhaps saw Martin Luther at Coburg. The spectacle of the adoration of the pope at Bologna impressed him strongly in an anti-papal direction. He left Quintana, visited Lyons and Geneva, repaired to John Oecolampadius at Basel, and pushed on to Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito at Strasbourg. Considerable attention was attracted by his first publication, De Trinitatis erroribus (1531, printed by John Setzer at Hagenau). It is crude, but original and earnest, and shows a wide range of reading very remarkable in so young a man. Philipp Melanchthon writes "Servetum multum lego." Quintana, who describes him as di grandissimo ingegno, and gran sophista, thought the matter was Serveto's, but the execution too good to be his. The essay was followed in 1532 by a revised presentation of his views in dialogue form. We next find him at Lyons (1535) editing scientific works for the Trechsel firm, adopting the "Villanovanus" surname, which he constantly used until the year of his death. At Lyons he found a new patron in Dr. Symphorien Champier (Campegius) (1472-1539), whose profession he resolved to follow. Resorting in 1536 to Paris, he studied medicine under Johann Günther, Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel. It was in 1536, when John Calvin was on a hurried and final visit to France, that in Paris he first met Servetus, and as he himself says, proposed to set him right on theological points. Servetus succeeded Andreas Vesalius as assistant to Günther, who extols his general culture, and notes his skill in dissection, and ranks him vix ulli secundus in knowledge of Galen. He graduated in arts, and claims to have graduated in medicine (of this there is no record at Paris), published six lectures on "syrups" (the most popular of his works), lectured on geometry and "astrology" (from a medical point of view) and defended by counsel a suit brought against him (March 1538) by the medical faculty on the ground of his astrological lectures. In June 1538 he writes from Louvain (enrolled there as a university student on the 14th of December 1537 as Michael Villanova) to his father (then resident at San Gil), explains his removal from Paris, early in September, in consequence of the death (8th August) of his master (el señor mi maestro), says he is studying theology and Hebrew, and proposes to return to Paris when peace is proclaimed. After this he practiced 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 September 1540 he entered himself for further study in the medical school at Montpellier, possibly gaining there a medical degree.

Among attendants on his Paris lectures was Pierre Paulmier, since 1528 Archbishop of Vienne. Paulmier now invited Servetus to Vienne as his confidential physician. He thus acted for twelve years (1541-53), making money by his practice, and also by renewed editorial work for the Lyons publishers -- work in which he constantly displayed his passion for original discovery in all departments. Outwardly he was a conforming Catholic; privately he pursued his theological speculations. It is probable that in 1541 he had been rebaptized (he maintained the duty of adult baptism at the age of thirty). Late in 1545, or very early in 1546, he opened a fatal correspondence with Calvin, forwarding the manuscript of a much-enlarged revision of his theological tracts and expressing a wish to visit Geneva. Calvin replied (13th February 1546) in a letter now lost; 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. Evidently Servetus had warning that if he went to Geneva it was at his peril. Writing to Abel Pouppin (in or about 1547) he complains that Calvin would not return his manuscript, and adds, "mihi ob eam rem moriendum esse certo scio." The volume of theological tracts, again recast, was declined by two Basel publishers, Jean Frellon (at Calvin's instance) and Marrinus, but an edition of 1000 copies was secretly printed at Vienna by Balthasar Arnollet. Ready by the 3rd of January 1553, the bulk of the impression was privately consigned to Lyons and Frankfurt for the Easter market. 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 échevin of Lyons, to his cousin Antoine Arneys in that city. The letter bears no sign of dictation by Calvin (who must, however, have furnished the enclosed sheet), and de Trye's part may be explained by an old grudge of his against the Lyons booksellers. For a subsequent letter Calvin furnished (reluctantly, according to de Trye) samples of Servetus's handwriting, expressly to secure his conviction. The inquisitor-general at Lyons, Matthieu Ory (the "Doribus" of Rabelais) took up the case on 12th March; Servetus was interrogated on 16th March, arrested on 4th April, and examined on the two following days. His defense 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. His own account is that he never left France; Calvin believed he was wandering in the North of Italy; the absurd suggestion that he lay hid as a conspirator in Geneva was first started by J. Spon (Hist. de Genève, 1680). On Saturday the 12th of August he rode into Louyset, a village on the French side of Geneva. Next morning, having sold his horse, he walked into Geneva, put up at "the Rose", and asked for a boat to take him towards Zürich on his way to Naples. Finding he could not get the boat until the next day (Monday) he attended afternoon service (he would probably have got into trouble if he had not done so), was recognized at church par quelques frères, and immediately arrested. The process against him (Nicholas de la Fontaine being in the first instance the nominal prosecutor) lasted from 14th August to 26th October, when sentence "estre brusle tout vyfz" was passed, and carried out next day at Champel (October 27th, 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 until 23rd December. Jacques Charmier, a priest in Servetus's confidence, was condemned to three years' imprisonment in Vienne. The only likeness of Servetus is a small copperplate by C. Sichem, 1607 (often reproduced); the original is not known and the authenticity is uncertain. In 1876 a statue of Servetus was erected by Don Pedro Gonsalez de Velasco in front of his Instituto Antropologico at Madrid; in 1903 an expiatory block was erected at Champel; in 1907 a statue was erected in Paris (Place de la Mairie du XIV Arrondissement); another is at Aramnese; another was prepared (1910) for erection at Vienne.

The religious views of Servetus, marked by strong individuality, are not easily described in terms of current systems. His denial of the tripersonality of the Godhead and the eternity of the Son, along with his anabaptism, made his system abhorrent to Catholics and Protestants alike, in spite of his intense Biblicism, his passionate devotion to the person of Christ, and his Christocentric scheme of the universe. His earliest theological writings, in which he approximates to the views of F. Socinus, are better known than his riper work. He has been classed with Arians, but he endorses in his own way the homoousian formula, and denounces Arius as "Christi gloriae incapacissimus." He has had many critics, some apologists (Postel and Lincurius), few followers. The fifteen condemnatory clauses, prefacing the sentence at Geneva, set forth in detail that he was guilty of heresies, blasphemously expressed, against the foundation of the Christian religion. An instance of his injurious language was found in his use 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 Rigot, the procureur-général, put it to Servetus that his legal education must have warned him of 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 recognized by the edicts of 1543 being banishment. The Swiss churches, while agreeing to condemn Servetus, say nothing of capital punishment in their letters of advice. The extinct law seems to have been revived for the occasion. A valuable controversy followed on the question of executing heretics, in which Theodore Beza (for), Mino Celsi (against), and several caustic anonymous writers (especially Castellio) took part.

Father: Anton Serveto Mejer (notary)
Mother: Catalina Conesa
Brother: Pedro Serveto Conesa (notary)
Brother: Juan Serveto Conesa (Catholic priest)

    Law School: Toulouse University
    University: College Calvi, Paris, France

    Heresy 4-Apr-1553, convicted 17-Jun-1553
    Escaped from Prison 7-Jul-1553
    Burned at the Stake
    Jewish Ancestry Maternal



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