Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/August 1892/Michael Servetus: Reformer, Physiologist, and Martyr
By CHARLES McRAE.
THE sixteenth century produced an unusually large number of famous biologists. To it belonged Andreas Vesalius, the incomparable anatomist, and his teachers, Sylvius and Winter of Andernach; Columbus of Cremona, to whom the discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood was for a century and a half ascribed; and Fallopius, Eustachius, Arantius, Fabricius of Aquapendente, and Cæsalpinus—men whose names have become familiar to every student of anatomy. Foremost, perhaps, among these illustrious workers stands the name of Michael Servetus, the physiologist and liberal thinker, who was burned to death as a heretic at Geneva in 1553, and whose life and tragic end have ever since excited the interest and sympathy of mankind.
Michael Servetus was born in Aragon or in Navarre about the year 1509. At an early age he entered the University of Saragossa, from which, in 1528, he was sent as a law student to the University of Toulouse. Here he may have read some of Luther's writings, for several of the latter were translated into Spanish soon after their publication. But whether he saw them or not, after staying two or three years at Toulouse he acquired certain views which were antagonistic to some of the generally received dogmas of the Church, and which influenced the whole of his subsequent life.
Quitting the university, he went—in what position it is known—with a Franciscan friar named Quintana, who was confessor to the Emperor Charles V, to Bologna, to the coronation of that monarch. And here, in Italy, it is supposed that he met with opinions which strengthened his desire for liberty of thought, for about this time he thus expresses himself: "For my own part I neither agree nor disagree in every particular with either Catholic or Reformer. Both of them seem to me to have something of truth and something of error in their views; and, while each sees the other's shortcomings, neither sees his own. God, in his goodness, give us all to understand our errors, and incline us to put them away," . . .
Leaving Bologna, the emperor with his suite proceeded to Germany to hold the Diet of Augsburg. And here Servetus probably saw and spoke to some of the leading Reformers.
Soon after this, however, he quitted the service of Quintana, and we find him seeking the friendship of certain of the Reformers, Œcolampadius and Bucer. He must have had the power of winning friends, for Bucer, in a letter, speaks of him as his dear son, "filius meus dilectus."
In 1531 Servetus published at Hagenau his first book, De Trinitatis Erroribus. This production of a young man only twenty-one or twenty-two years of age, crude as it was, excited remark from Luther and Melanchthon. In the Table-Talk of 1532 Luther refers to it as "a fearfully wicked book which had lately come out against the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Visionaries like the writer do not seem to fancy that other folks as well as they may have had temptations on this subject. But the sting did not hold; I set the Word of God and the Holy Ghost against my thoughts and got free."
Melanchthon confesses he has read Servetus much. "I see him indeed sufficiently sharp and subtle in disputation, but I do not give him credit for much depth. He is possessed, as it seems to me, of confused imaginations, and his thoughts are not well matured on the subjects he discusses."
Œcolampadius wrote: "Our senate have forbidden the Spaniard's book to be sold here. They have asked my opinion of its merits, and I have said that as the writer does not acknowledge the co-eternity of the Son, I can in no wise approve of it as a whole, although it contains much else that is good."
Servetus now followed this with Two Dialogues on the Trinity, explanatory and additional to the former work. Thus he published two books against the principal dogma of the Church in less than two years, without hesitating to put his name on the title-page of both. He was very young, extremely zealous for his new opinion, and perhaps unacquainted with the principles of the Reformers. He may have thought that if they wrote freely about the doctrine of Transubstantiation, why should he not inquire into the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. But the reception afforded to his two works was of such a kind as to convince him that he had committed an imprudent act in allowing his name to appear as the author, and he accordingly changed his name and retired to Lyons. The name he now assumed, and by which he was always afterward known, was Michael Villeneuve, or Villanovanus, after the town of Villanueva, in Aragon, from which he probably came.
At Lyons he found work as a corrector for the press, at the publishing firm of the Brothers Trechsel, and he edited the Geography of Ptolemy. The description of Palestine which this book contained, although really an extract and not an original statement by Servetus, was quoted against him eighteen years afterward when he was tried for his life at Geneva. It concluded with these words: "Know, however, most worthy reader, that it is mere boasting and untruth when so much of excellence is ascribed to this land; the experience of merchants and others, travelers who have visited it, proving it to be inhospitable, barren, and destitute of all charm. "Wherefore you may say that the land was promised, indeed, but is of little promise when spoken of in every-day terms."
The latter part of the following description of the Germans, which is given in this book, looks like an expression of Servetus's own opinion: "Hungary is commonly said to produce oxen, Bavaria swine, Franconia onions, turnips, and licorice, Swabia harlots, Bohemia heretics, Switzerland butchers, Westphalia cheats, and the whole country gluttons and drunkards. The Germans, however, are a religious people; not easily turned from opinions they have once espoused, and not readily persuaded to concord in matters of schism, every one valiantly and obstinately defending the heresy he has himself adopted."
While thus working at Lyons, Servetus formed the acquaintance of Doctor Campeggius, to whose influence it was perhaps due that he decided to take up the study of medicine. To carry out this determination he proceeded to Paris, and entered as a student at the university under Johannes Guinterus (Winter of Andernach) and Sylvius. Here he had as a fellow-student Andreas Vesalius, the famous anatomist, to whom, as well as to Servetus, their teacher Winter makes a laudatory reference some time afterward. Writing in the preface to his Anatomical Institutions, published in 1539, Winter informs his readers that he "had been effectually aided in the preparation of the work, first by Andreas Vesalius, a young man, by Hercules! singularly proficient in anatomy; and after him by Michael Villanovanus, distinguished by his literary acquirements of every kind, and’ scarcely second to any in his knowledge of the teaching of Galen."
After taking his degree, Servetus lectured in Paris on geometry and astrology. The lectures on the latter subject involved him in a dispute with the university; and in March, 1538, we find him defending by counsel a suit that was brought against him by the medical faculty on account of these lectures. In 1537 he wrote a little book, Syruporum Universa ratio, the most popular, perhaps, of all his writings, containing six lectures on digestion, with one chapter—the fifth—devoted to the composition and use of sirups, or tisanes.
In June, 1538, he was at the University of Lou vain studying theology and Hebrew; and in a letter to his father written from this place, he explains that he has left Paris, owing to the death of his master, but hopes to return soon. After practicing as a doctor for a short time at Charlieu, he continued his studies for part of 1540 at the University of Montpellier, where unusual facilities were at that time afforded to medical students.
At Paris, some years before, Servetus had made the acquaintance of Pierre Paurnier, a man of learned tastes, who was now Archbishop of Vienne, in Dauphiny. At his invitation the Spaniard took up his residence at Vienne, and there appears to have lived in quiet seclusion from 1541 to 1553. His professional work was not too heavy to allow of his taking up literary pursuits also. He brought out a new edition of Ptolemy's Geography, and he annotated the Latin Bible of Pagnini. In his preface to the latter work he intimates what he considers to be the proper method of interpreting the prophetical books. He says that people who are ignorant of the affairs and customs of the Hebrews easily think the historical and literal sense of no importance; and in consequence of this they ridiculously follow a mystical interpretation everywhere. "Wherefore," he adds, "I would desire you again and again, Christian reader, to get the knowledge of the Hebrew in the first place, and, after that, diligently to apply yourself to the study of Jewish history, before you enter upon the reading of the prophets."
One of the gravest charges brought against Servetus by Calvin was that by such a method of interpretation "this impostor has dared to give such a wrong turn to the passages (contained in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah) as to interpret them of Cyrus. So that whatever the prophet has with great perspicuity, and with the utmost force of expression, discoursed, this perfidious villain has blotted out (delevit hic perfidus nebulo)."
Here it may be remarked that while no one would pretend that Servetus was a biblical critic and expositor, yet his method of looking first for the historical and literal meaning is the method of the modern school of scriptural exegesis.
The book which immediately brought about the imprisonment and death of Servetus was called Christianismi Restitutio—the Restoration of Christianity. It contained, besides a series of chapters setting forth the various theological tenets of the author, thirty letters addressed to Calvin. The views of the writer, although fantastical, and in many instances unintelligible, often exhibit a broad and tolerant spirit, and always breathe intense earnestness. He appears to have felt himself impelled to propagate his opinions on these theological matters, and to have come to regard this as his mission in life, which must be fulfilled at any risk. So much, at least, is clear from the invocation to Christ, with which he closes his introduction. "Thou hast taught us that the light is not to be hidden, so woe to me unless I evangelize." He seems even to have thought that he had his vocation shadowed out to him in his name. The angel Michael led the embattled hosts of heaven to war against the dragon; and he, Michael Servetus, had been chosen to lead the angels on earth against Antichrist!
This book is now one of the rarest in the world. Two copies only are known to be extant—one at Paris and another at Vienna. A copy of the latter, printed in 1790, is in the British Museum.
In this work, while writing on the Trinity (Book V), Servetus introduces certain physiological statements in order to illustrate some of his theological speculations. The passage, although lost to the world for nearly a century and a half, has long ago become famous. It was first brought to light in Wotton's Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, published in London in 1694. It proves that the knowledge which Servetus possessed of the way by which the blood passed from the right to the left side of the heart was in advance of his time, and a step beyond that reached by Galen. The latter had taught that the blood, for the most part, passed through the septum, from one side of the heart to the other. Servetus wrote: "This communication" (i. e., from the right ventricle of the heart to the left) "does not take place through the septum, partition, or midwall of the heart, as commonly believed, but by another admirable contrivance, the blood being transmitted from the pulmonary artery to the pulmonary vein, by a lengthened passage through the lungs, in the course of which it is elaborated and becomes of a crimson color. Mingled with the inspired air in this passage, and freed from fuliginous vapors by the act of expiration, the mixture being now complete in every respect, and the blood become fit dwelling-place of the vital spirit, it is finally attracted by the diastole, and reaches the left ventricle of the heart." He then goes on to give as proofs of the accuracy of his statements (1) the various conjunctions and communications of the pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein in the lungs, and (2) the great size of the pulmonary artery, and the great quantity of blood passing through it; both being much larger than would be required for the mere nutrition of the lungs. He concludes that the septum, seeing that it is without vessels and special properties, is not fitted to permit the communication in question, "although," he adds, "it may be that some transudation takes place through it." This unfortunate qualification of what he has so distinctly affirmed just before namely, that the communication does not take place through the septum is not very intelligible; for if he believed the blood to soak through the septum, his theory differs but little from that of Galen, and yet Servetus calls attention to the fact that what he is declaring was unknown to Galen.
Prof. Huxley points out that Servetus quotes neither observation nor experiment in favor of the imperviousness of the septum. But neither does Realdus Columbus, who correctly described the lesser circulation in 1559, and to whom the credit of the discovery was very early ascribed. It is to be remembered that the work in which Servetus introduces his discovery is not a treatise on physiology, and that the whole passage being brought in by way of illustration is not fully treated.
It is clear, however, that Servetus held (1) that the blood in a great stream passes from the right ventricle of the heart to the lungs; (2) that in the lungs, and not in the left ventricle, it is purified; and (3) that from the lungs it passes by the pulmonary vein to the left ventricle of the heart and thence into the arteries.
From these statements of fact Servetus quickly passes to metaphysical speculations. He has before said: "There are three sorts of spirits in the human body—namely, natural, vital, and animal—which are not in reality three, but two distinct spirits only; the arteries communicating by anastomoses, the vital spirit to the veins, in which it is called natural. The first spirit then is the blood, whose seat is in the liver, and in the veins of the body; the second is the vital spirit, whose seat is the heart and arteries; the third is the animal spirit, whose seat is in the brain and nerves."
Now, he goes on to suppose that the blood, having received in its passage through the lungs the breath of life, is sent by the left ventricle into the arteries. The purest part ascends to the base of the brain, where it is more refined and changed from the vital to the animal spirit, and acts upon the mass of the brain, which is incapable of reasoning without its stimulus. From this, and much more which is unintelligible, it appears plain that Servetus had read the schoolmen, and was imbued with their methods of reasoning.
To get published a book filled, as the Christianismi Restitutio was, with theological opinions repugnant alike to Catholics and Reformers, was no easy task. And in effecting his purpose Servetus exercised great caution and ingenuity. At Vienne, where he had lived for twelve years, was a publisher named Arnoullet, whom, with the printer Geroult, Servetus took into his confidence. He engaged not only to pay the whole expenses, but also to add a gratuity of a hundred crowns. It was arranged that the printing should not be carried on at the ordinary place of business, but that a small house at some distance should be used for the purpose. The printing was commenced on St. Michael's day, and in three or four months one thousand copies of the book were ready.
No name appeared on the title-page, but at the end of the book immediately over the date the initials "M. S. V." were placed, and at page 199, at the commencement of the dialogue between Michael and Petrus, the latter is made to say: "Here he is; Servetus is here, of whom I was speaking." The reference made in the preface to former works on the same subject, and the introduction of Michael and Peter as interlocutors, just as had been done in the Dialogue on the Trinity twenty years before, rendered it easy to establish that Michael Servetus and Michael Villeneuve were one and the same man.
The whole stock of books, when ready, was made up into bales of one hundred each, and sent away, the greater part to Lyons, to the care of a type-founder named Pierre Merrin, who believed that the packets contained nothing but blank paper. It was probably intended to forward them, as soon as opportunity offered, to Genoa and Venice.
Meanwhile, unknown to Servetus, a copy of the work, and a letter giving particulars of the printing of it, were dispatched to Calvin at Geneva, probably by some one at Lyons, who had friends at Vienne, and who was in the confidence of both Servetus and Calvin. Armed with this evidence against the Spaniard, Calvin caused a letter to be written to Vienne by a young man named William Trie, denouncing Servetus, and inclosing the first few sheets of the Christianismi Restitutio. By a subsequent mail he sent by the same man about twenty letters, which he had received from time to time from Servetus. On this the latter was arrested, and conveyed to prison on the pretense of being required to see some sick prisoner. He was immediately examined closely as to his early history and the meaning of some of his writings. Taken by surprise, as he was, he appears to have prevaricated, and tried to hide his identity with the author of De Trinitatis Erroribus, by pretending that in his letters with Calvin he had personated Servetus merely for the purpose of discussion. Facts looked very black against him, but he probably had very powerful friends, and it may have been with the connivance of some of them that two days afterward he made his escape from prison. The whole plot was soon ferreted out by Matthew Ory, the Inquisitor; the books were seized, and Servetus was condemned "in a pecuniary mulct of a thousand livres, to be paid to the King of Dauphiny"; and the sentence went on, "as soon as he shall be taken he shall be drawn in a dung-cart, with his books, on the market-day and hour, from the gate of the Royal Palace, through the streets and accustomed places, to the common hall of the present city, and from thence to the place called Charneve, and there he shall be burnt alive, with a slow fire, until his body shall be reduced to ashes. In the mean time the present sentence shall be executed in effigy, with which the said books shall be burnt."
This sentence was duly carried out on June 17, 1553, the effigy and five bales of books being burned to ashes.
Of such action as Calvin's in thus betraying what had been communicated to him in the confidence of a letter, into the hands of a professed enemy of both, Erasmus expresses himself as follows: "You are not ignorant how abhorrent, I do not say from virtue, but entirely from all humanity, it is to betray the secrets of friendship; forasmuch as we detest even those who, after a breach of friendship, shall divulge what was said in confidence before; nor can those of a generous disposition suffer themselves to betray that which they know, from the confidence of ancient friendship, will expose one to the resentment of his greatest enemies."
Having escaped from Vienne, Servetus probably remained in hiding first at Lyons. But the discovery of the whole matter, and his subsequent condemnation, made it imperative that he should get out of France. Many Spaniards were settled at Naples, and thither he now seems to have determined to push his way. For some reason or other, probably because he expected more leniency from Reformers than from Catholics, he preferred to go through Switzerland rather than Piedmont. He reached Geneva, and lodged at the Rose Inn, intending to go by boat to Lausanne on his way to Zurich. Calvin, however, learned that he was in the town, and he immediately informed the first syndic, and caused him to be apprehended; and here he was kept while proceedings were being taken against him, from August 14th to October 27th.
The people of Geneva, in the year 1553, were, and had been for several years, divided into two hostile parties, struggling desperately with each other for the supremacy. The austerity and tyranny of Calvin had aroused against him many opponents, and it seemed now as if these were on the point of attaining the ends for which they had been so long striving. Calvin's earliest attempts at ruling the Genevese had soon met with failure. He had first settled in Geneva in 1536, but so unpopular had he become in two years that he and his colleague, Farel, were formally banished from the city. Passing from Basle to Strasburg, he had taken up his residence in the latter city as Professor of Theology. But after two years, in response to a deputation which came and besought his return to Geneva, he consented to go* back, and in September, 1541, he took up his old position under greater advantages than before. He then laid before the Council the draft of his ordinances respecting church discipline, and these were at once accepted. A consistory was formed, composed for the most part of clergymen, with the addition of a few laymen, "to watch over the support of the pure doctrine and of morals."
The tribunal called everybody, without exception, to account for his slightest words or actions, and referred cases, where ecclesiastical censure was not sufficient, to the Council. Thus Calvin had made himself director of the conduct as well as of the opinion of the Genevese. His spirit governed exclusively in the Council as in the Consistory, and no one could hope to succeed who set himself in opposition to Calvin.
Twelve years of such bondage, however, had not been borne by the Genevese without indication of discontent and dissatisfaction. The Council declared that clergymen could no longer be admitted to its meetings, although they had not been previously excluded; men who were under the consistorial ban for some infringement of discipline were chosen as councilors, and even open hostility was shown to Calvin, who wrote: "The accumulated rancor of their hearts breaks out from time to time; so that when I show myself in the street, the curs are hounded on me."
To the great misfortune of Servetus it was at such a time as this that he arrived in Geneva. His case became the subject of dispute over which the two factions fought one of their bitterest struggles; and although Calvin had declared some years before that if the Spaniard ever came to that city he should not escape with his life, yet probably the relentless Reformer was now bent on his destruction quite as much by a desire to defeat the opposite party as by the personal hatred he had for Servetus.
The nominal prosecutor of Servetus was a creature of Calvin's—a certain Nicolas de la Fontaine—who, in accordance with the law, had not only to bind himself over to continue the suit to a conclusion, but also to go to prison with the accused man, and, in compliance with the requirements of the lex talionis, to engage, in case his charges were not made good, to undergo the penalty that would have fallen on the accused had they been established.
Thirty-eight articles of impeachment were advanced against Servetus. One of these was that he had defamed Mr. Calvin and the doctrine that he preached. To this Servetus replied that he had had abusive language from Calvin, and that he had only answered in the same terms. La Fontaine produced Ptolemy's Geography, the annotated Bible, the Christianismi Eestitutio, and certain MS. letters, and Servetus admitted that he was the author of all. It having been considered now that sufficient evidence had been furnished to warrant prosecution by the attorney-general, the court relieved La Fontaine of all charge, damage, and interest in the matter, and Servetus was committed for trial.
At the trial, passages from Ptolemy's Geography as to the character of Palestine were adduced as proofs of the heretical opinions of the prisoner, and when the latter added that the notes contained nothing harmful, or that was not true, Calvin himself warmly interposed. And writing afterward about the event, he says: "When Servetus stood so plainly convicted of this his impiety he had nothing to allege in his vindication. The filthy cur, laying aside all shame, asserted in one word that there was no harm in it."
The annotations of the Pagnini Bible were produced again, and Servetus was examined as to his method of interpreting prophetical passages, and then the meaning of certain extracts from the Christianismi Restitutio was inquired into, and a letter from Servetus, written about six years before to Abel Pepin, a preacher at Geneva, was put in. It contained two remarkable passages:
"It is perhaps far from agreeable to you that I should concern myself with Michael's war in the Apocalypse, or that I should desire to bring you into the strife. But do so much as consider that passage narrowly, and you will soon perceive who the men were to be who would engage in that quarrel, namely, such as were resolved to expose their lives to death for the blood and the testimony of Jesus Christ. . . . That I must die for the cause I have espoused I certainly know; but I am not at all cast down on that account, since by that I shall be a disciple made like to his master."
Some days afterward Calvin came into court attended by all the ministers of Geneva, and undertook to prove that the teaching of the early fathers of the Church was opposed to that of Servetus. After Calvin and the prisoner had had a long dispute as to the meaning of the word persona, the court adjourned, but before doing so the judges gave permission for Servetus to be provided, at his own cost, with such books as he needed, which could be obtained in Geneva or Lyons. Some paper and ink, with which the prisoner was now for the first time furnished, enabled him to send in a petition on the following day. In this he pointed out that the prosecution, as a criminal, of a man on account of the views he held on doctrine was contrary to the Scriptures and to the ancient Church; and he begged that, as he was a foreigner, wholly unacquainted with the customs of the country, and of how he should proceed, he might be allowed an advocate. But to this very reasonable request, although subsequently repeated more than once, the judges did not accede.
The Syndics and Council of Geneva now addressed a letter to the authorities of Vienne, asking that the documents connected with the trial of Michael Villeneuve might be sent to them; and, three days after, they received a letter saying that these documents could not be forwarded, but that, if the prisoner were delivered over to them, the sentence already passed on him would be carried into effect. Servetus was hereupon asked if he preferred remaining in the hands of the Council or to be sent back to Vienne. Knowing full well that a cruel death most certainly awaited him in France, and hoping that no such punishment was in store for him here, he fell on his knees and besought the Council to do what they would with him, but in no case to send him back to Vienne.
The trial was accordingly continued.
Meanwhile, Servetus lay in one of the foul cells set apart for criminals of the lowest class, and we find him writing in a petition, dated September 15th: "Calvin is resolved that I should rot in a prison to please him. I am eaten up with lice. My hose are worn to pieces and I have no change, nor another doublet, and only one shirt, and that in tatters."
Another petition, dated a week later, ends with the words: "Wherefore, my lords, I desire that my false accuser should be punished pæna talionis, and confined to prison as I am, till he or I be condemned to death or to some other punishment. I am willing to die if he is not convicted both of this and other things which I shall lay to his charge. I beg of you, my lords, to do me justice. Justice, my lords, justice!"
Finally, on October 10th, comes his last appeal: "It is now three weeks since I desired to have a hearing, but could not obtain it. I beseech you, for the love of Jesus Christ, not to deny me what you would not deny a Turk, when I beg you to do me justice. I have several things to tell you that are very important and necessary. As to what you may have ordered to be done for me in the way of cleanliness, I have to inform you that nothing has been done, and that I am in a more miserable condition than ever. In addition to which, I suffer terribly from the cold and from colic, and my rupture, which causes me miseries of other kinds that I should feel shame in writing about more particularly. It is very cruel that I am neither allowed to speak nor to have my pressing wants supplied. For the love of God, my lords, either in pity or in duty, give some orders in my behalf."
During this time a letter was sent by the Council of Geneva to the different Swiss churches, asking for an expression of opinion on the case of Servetus. The answers came back in due course, and the Spaniard was declared to be an intolerable monster of impiety, and to have revived the wicked errors "with which Satan did formerly disturb the Church." The Church of Zurich was more vehement than the rest in exhorting the magistrates to deal severely with him.
On the morning of October 27th, Servetus was summoned "to learn the pleasure of my lords the Councilors and Justices of Geneva," and before the porch of the Hotel de Ville he heard his condemnation: "To be burned alive, along with thy books, printed as well as written with thy hand, until thy body be reduced to ashes. So shall thy days end, and thou be made an example to others who would do as thou hast done."
The sentence was immediately carried into execution. In a few hours Calvin's most subtle disputant had forever ceased to trouble him, and the world was the poorer by one loving, faithful spirit.—The Gentleman's Magazine.
The two main things required in anthropological study, said the Rev. Lorimer Fison, sectional president in the Australasian Association, are a patient continuance in collecting facts and the faculty of seeing in them what is seen by the natives themselves. But the natural tendency to form a theory as soon as a fact is seized, and looking at facts from the mental point of view of civilized man, may lead investigators into fatal mistakes. The best way to gain information is to live with the natives, learn their language, and get their confidence, or get information from the men living among them. References to aborigines, their manners and customs, in books might be collected and classified by many readers (as has been done in Spencer's Descriptive Sociology), and thus facilitate investigation. The speaker dwelt on the magnificent and all but untrodden field afforded by British New Guinea and its outlying groups of islands.