Even the good and the great can make the most terrible gaffes, and the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake in Champel in 1553 is generally considered to be the most serious error of judgement in the otherwise exemplary life and career of Jean Calvin, Geneva’s Protestant ruler in the sixteenth century.
At that epoch, it was quite common for scholars to use a Latin or Greek form of their name. Thus, Michael Servetus was born Miguel Serveto-in the northern Spanish village of Villanueva de Sijena in 1511. He studied law in Toulouse while, for his own benefit, reading the Bible in Latin, Greek and Hebrew-and the Koran too ! Servetus had a gift for languages. The 1520s and 1530s were a time of the greatest possible turmoil-and peril-in the religious life of Europe as the Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity wrestled for territorial control. As a young man, Servetus plunged naively into the general controversy in which people were prepared to kill and be killed for their religious beliefs.
He became secretary to the Franciscan friar John de Quintana, a confessor and advisor to the Royal House of Habsburg. In 1530 the two men went to Bologna in Italy where Charles V was to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. Pope Clement VII was an Italian prince, a Medici-a diplomat and politician first and a pious ruler … er, second. Europe’s religious chaos was reaching its peak at about this time and the Pope’s attempts to steer a course through the doctrinal maelstrom brought the Catholic Church into disrepute. Servetus was appalled at the pomp and ceremony of the coronation ceremony in Bologna and by the Emperor’s deference to the Pope-not so much a holy man as a man of the world ! Servetus left Quintana’s service and travelled across Europe in a quest for the truth from the leading religious reformers. He began to have some ideas of his own about the interpretation of the Bible, which-to avoid persecution from the Catholic authorities-he published in 1531 under the pseudonym of Michel de Villeneuve. His idea of returning to the simplicity of the early Christian Church was rather fashionable. Nevertheless, although Catholics and Protestants seemed resolutely divided, Servetus succeeded in the impossible-he made deadly enemies in both camps (see box) !
During the 1530s, Servetus studied botany, cartography, pharmacology, theology and astrology at various universities, before finally obtaining a degree in medicine from Paris in 1538. He became physician to Pierre Palmier, the archbishop of the town of Vienne near Lyon, where he also worked as an editor of books. While outwardly conforming to the Catholic faith, he pursued his theological studies and his writing became increasingly radical. He rejected a great deal of contemporary religious thought, while seeking to base church practice on the Holy Scriptures. Extraordinarily, Servetus also described in one of his books for the first time the function of the pulmonary circulation of blood, but this did not come to light for many years afterwards since most of his books were burned !
Fatefully, in 1546 Servetus started corresponding with Jean Calvin in Geneva. Calvin sent him a copy of his own book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which Servetus promptly returned, thoroughly annotated with arrogant observations. Calvin replied to Servetus : « I neither hate you nor despise you ; nor do I wish to persecute you ; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity. » Servetus came back with a domineering and abusive answer. Their correspondence became more and more heated until Calvin decided to end it. In a letter to a friend, Calvin said that if Servetus should ever come to Geneva, he would not be permitted to leave alive.
Over the years, Servetus had been labouring to put his radical religious ideas into a magnum opus. He finally had 1,000 copies of his book Christianismi Restitutio published secretly in Vienne in 1553. When his authorship became known, both Catholics and Protestants were determined to silence him. He was denounced by a merchant friend of Calvin. First, he was arrested and tried by the Catholic authorities in Vienne, but released for lack of evidence. He was then arrested again-this time the missing evidence had been supplied by a certain « Jehan Calvin, preacher of Geneva »-but managed to escape. His effigy and his books were, however, burned. On the run, he decided to flee to Italy but on the way, crazily, he turned up at a Protestant church service in Geneva presided by Jean Calvin. He was recognized and arrested. French inquisitors demanded his extradition, but Calvin wanted to show that he could be as uncompromising as his Catholic counterparts. Insults flew when Servetus met Calvin. Servetus’s trial, which lasted from August to October 1553, was followed closely by Calvin and involved correspondence with other religious groups in search of solid religious and legal arguments. On one point everyone agreed : Servetus was a heretic. But, as a foreigner, the worst that could legally happen to him was that he should be deported. Calvin wanted him beheaded, but his health was did not allow him to be present at the trial and his request was ignored. Servetus was finally burned at the stake at Champel on 27 October, with a copy of his latest book chained to his leg. A monument now stands at the spot, while there are statues of him in Annemasse, Vienne and Paris, as well as in the village where he was born.
Despite his intensive knowledge of the Bible, despite his passionate devotion to Christianity, Servetus succeeded in making enemies on both sides of the religious divide. Nevertheless, his execution was denounced and Calvin harshly criticized for the inhuman treatment of a religious rival. Servetus is often regarded as the first martyr by the Christian sect called the Unitarians, which includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses.