Servetus, Michael

views updated


(b. Villanueva de Sixena [?], Spain, 29 September 1511 [?]; d. Geneva Switzerland, 27 October 1553)

biology, philosophy.

There is controversy as to the date and place of birth of Michael Servetus. The conflicting data were supplied by Servetus himself during his trials at Lyons and Geneva, when he was anxious to mislead his inquisitors. The more likely date, 29 September 1511 as against the traditional 1509, is corroborated by two separate statements made by Servetus: that he as forty-two t the time of his trial in Lyons and that he was twenty when he published his first book. Villanueva de Sixena, in the province of Huesca, has been authenticated as the place where his family resided; hence Servetus’ choice of Villanovanus as a pseudonym. He also had stated, however, that he was born at Tudela, Navarre, thus leading some historians to suppose that his family lived there at the time of his birth and later moved to Villanueva. Evidence is lacking to support this inference.

Servetus’ parents were Antonio Serveto, alias Reves (a pseudonym Servetus also used), a notary, and Catalina Conesa. They were “Old Christian” nobles; and one of his brothers was a priest. Not much is known of his early education. Possibly, after completing church school, he attended the University of Zaragoza, which was not far from his home. There he learned Latin.

A combination of intellectual precocity and family connections led Servetus, at the age of fifteen, to enter the service of the learned Franciscan friar Juan de Quintana, who held a doctorate from the Sorbonne and was a member of the Cortes of Aragon. The influence of Erasmianism in Spain was well manifested in Quintana, who at the Diet of Augsburg told Melanchthon that he was unable to understand why Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith should have aroused so much controversy.

Servetus temporarily left Quintana’s employ to pursue legal studies at the University of Toulouse in 1528. This institution was considered preeminent in the field of law, and Servetus described it as “the mother of those skilled in law.” (All quotations are from the O’Malley translation.) It was here that Servetus became interested in scriptural studies, and he may have studied Greek and Hebrew as linguistic aids. His stay in Toulouse was brief; for Quintana, having been named confessor to Emperor Charles V, recalled him to his service in 1529. In Quintana’s train Servetus witnessed Charles V’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor at Bologna and later traveled to Germany, where the emperor hoped to settle the Protestant problem.

Servetus’ earlier studies of the Bible had raised grave doubts in his mind. Nowhere in the Bible did he find the world “Trinity.” He must have realized that he could no longer stay in Quintana’s employ, for he left his patron in 1530. By July of that year he was in Basel. He hoped to meet Erasmus, but the latter had left Basel more than a year earlier. Johannes Oecolampadius was now the chief reformer of that city; and Servetus stayed in his house as a guest, probably for the ten months that he remained in Basel.

Oecolampadius, who was forty-eight, showed great forbearance toward the nineteen-year-old Servetus, who, aside from voicing anti-Trinitarian doctrines, was a contentious, vain, and stubborn young man. Oecolampadius made every effort to convert Servetus, but to no avail. At the conference of reformers in Zurich, he was driven to complain about this Spaniard who was spreading the Arian heresy in his city. On his return to Basel, Oecolampadius heeded Zwingli’s admonition that every possible means be taken to prevent Servetus’ heresy from spreading, and Servetus left Basel.

He chose to go to Strasbourg, for he had befriended Martin Bucer and the city was wellknown for its tolerant attitude toward sectarian movements. At Hagenau, near Strasbourg, Servetus found a printer, Johannes Setzer, who had published some 150 titles, and convinced him to print his first work. In July 1531, De trinitatis erroribus went on sale.

In this work, published when he was only twenty, Servetus displayed a very wide range of reading. He cited many authors and pitted their views against the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew texts. Thus he was able to show the discrepancy between later Scholastic theories and the original Biblical statements on the Trinity. Servetus denied the doctrine of three equal persons in Godhead and brought on himself the condemnation of both Catholics and Protestants.

Bucer refuted De trinitatis publicly, and the city magistrates banned its sale in Strasbourg, Servetus returned to Basel; but the reception of his work there was, if anything, harsher than in Strasbourg. Partly in order to allay criticism, he published De trinitate (1532). Although the tone of this second work was not as unrestrained, Servetus fundamentally stuck to his doctrines. It therefore was advisable for him to leave Switzerland.

Assuming the name of Michel de Villeneuve, Servetus moved to France. In 1533 he was studying in Paris at the Collége Calvi. At this time Paris was beginning to crack down on heretics, however; and a meeting between Servetus and Calvin did not take place, probably because of the former’s fear of being apprehended. Servetus decided to go to Lyons, where he may have stopped briefly before going to Paris. Being a trade center, Lyons was a relatively more tolerant city; moreover, there were many great printing houses there where he could find work.

Servetus became a corrector and editor for the most famous publishers in Lyons, the brothers Trechsel. For them he prepared two editions of Ptolemy’s Geography (1535, 1541) and three editions of the Bible (an octavo Bible and the Santis Pagnini Bible, both in 1542, and a seven-volume edition that appeared in 1542). His edition of the Santis Pagnini Bible is the best-known and is remarkable for its theory of prophecy.

Ptolemy’s Geography had been the standard work on the subject since the second century and had often appeared in Greek and Latin editions. Servetus used Willibald Pirckheimer’s edition of 1524 and compared it with the Greek text and other editions. With great relish he pointed out the many errors that had crept into the Pirckheimer edition. Subsequent geographers have acknowledged the validity of these corrections.

In the preparation of the text that accompanied the fifty maps, Servetus stated that he had consulted eighty works. In reference to the New World, he wrote that “those err to high heaven... who contend that this continent should be called America, since Amerigo approached that land long after Columbus....” Some historians have gone so far as to claim that he was the founder of comparative geography because of his comments on national characteristics and his interest in national psychology, which were new for the time. The success of this work was attested to by the fact that Servetus was commissioned to do another edition, with minor alterations, in 1541.

Servetus’ interest in medicine was aroused in connection with his proofreading duties. Many medical works were published in Lyons, and the Trechsel firm published the writings of the distinguished medical humanist Symphorien Champier, with whom Servetus struck up a close friendship. Significantly, Servetus’ first medical work, In Leonardum Fuchsium apologia (1536), was a defense of Champier, who had become involved in a controversy with Leonhard Fuchs. In the Apologia Servetus expounded his belief in the healing powers of certain herbs.

It was probably Champier who advised Servetus to return to Paris and study medicine. The preface of the Apologia was dated 12 November 1536, from Paris. There Servetus became part of a distinguished medical circle, and his teachers included Sylvius (Jacques Dubois), Fernel, and Johannes Guinter. The last singled him out, together with Vesalius, as his most able assistant in dissection. (Servetus and Vesalius may not have known each other personally; evidence suggests that the latter had returned to Louvain by the time Servetus reached Paris.)

In 1537 Servetus published what was essentially a continuation of the Apologia, the Syruporum universa ratio, which was so successful that it went through six editions and helped finance his stay in Paris. This fundamentally Galenic work centered on the use of syrups for curative purposes and contained a significant passage on the use of “correct” foods, especially citrus fruits, as an aid in the assimilative process of digestion. Servetus also maintained that sickness was the perversion of the natural functions of body organs and was not caused by the introduction of new elements into the body. The Apologia and the Syruporum were noteworthy contributions to modern pharmacology.

Contrary to university regulations, which at any rate were only laxly enforced. Servetus supplemented his dwindling funds by giving lectures, although he did not have a Master of Arts degree. His original subject was geography, in which his edition of Ptolemy had given him enough reputation. He then moved on to astronomy and became involved in judicial astrology or forecasting and its relation to medicine. He was charged before the Faculty of Medicine with lecturing on astrology. In his defense Servetus wrote the Apologetica disceptatio pro astrologia (1538), which he hastened to publish despite indications that the Parlement of Paris had been asked to issue an injunction against its publication. Too late to prevent its appearance, the Parlement confiscated all copies of the Astrologia and reprimanded its author. Because of the absence of any record that he received a degree in medicine, many authors have surmised that this incident prevented Servetus from completing his studies. Nevertheless, his 1541 contract to edit the Bible referred to him as a docteur en médecine; and, although this document was drafted in Lyons, there certainly were persons in that city who had known him well in Paris.

In 1538 Servetus returned to Lyons; then moved to Charlieu, where he practiced medicine for three years; then returned to Lyons. During most of the latter time Servetus lived at Vienne in the palace of Archbishop Pierre Palmier, the outstanding churchman of the region, who had attended his lectures in Paris and whom he now served as personal physician. He also practiced medicine at large for the next twelve years; and his colleagues elected him prior of the Confraternity of St. Luke, with responsibility to supervise the apothecaries and tend to the indigent hospital patients.

Although outwardly living as a Catholic, Servetus did not abandon his theological studies and his original doctrines. He had been at work on his magnum opus, the Christianismi restitutio, which was published on 3 January 1553. This theological treatise contained Servetus’ imperishable contribution to science as the first man in the West to discover the lesser circulation of the blood. His primary concern, however, was theological: the problem of the introduction of the divine spirit into the blood and its dissemination throughout the body. He stated that the blood was not transmitted from the right ventricle of the heart to the left by way of the septum, for “that middle wall, since it is lacking in vessels and mechanisms, is not suitable for that communication and elaboration, although something may possibly sweat through,” Rather, noting the size of the pulmonary artery, Servetus concluded that it was too large for simply transporting a small portion of the blood for the nutriment of the lungs, the function that Galen had ascribed to it. Servetus asserted that blood passed through the lungs for oxygenation. A further statement that the “vital spirit is then transfused from the left ventricle of the heart into the arteries of the whole body” showed that Servetus had arrived at the threshold of the complete circulation. Since his interest was primarily theological, however, he did not pursue this; and we have no way of knowing whether he could have done so.

Servetus’ claim to the discovery of the lesser circulation has been questioned. Reference has been made to Realdo Colombo’s De re anatomica, which, although published in 1559, was written earlier. Nonetheless, a manuscript of Christianismi restitutio in the Bibliothéqaue Nationale bears evidence of having been written before 1546. Ibn alNafis described the lesser circulation in a work that dates form the mid-thirteenth century, but Servetus’ finding was made independently.

The publication of Christianismi restitutio and his earlier letters of Calvin, including drafts of some chapters of the book, led to Servetus’ undoing, for Calvin allowed these letters to be used to inform the authorities in Lyons as to the true identity of Michel de Villeneuve. On 4 April 1553, Servetus was arrested and imprisoned but managed to escape three days later. In the meantime most of the thousand copies of his work were confiscated and burned; it was not until 1694 that Servetus’ discovery of the lesser circulation became known. When Harvey announced the discovery of the general circulation in 1628, he did not know of Servetus’ contribution.

Servetus remained out of sight for four months in France and then decided to go to Italy. He chose the route that passed through Geneva, where on 13 August he was recognized and denounced by Calvin to the magistrates. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake; his last cry was a reaffirmation ofhis views on the Trinity.


I. Original Works. A complete listing of Servetus’ works is in John F. Fulton, Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr (New York, 1953), which also shows where copies may be found. An able translation of the scientific writings of Servetus is C. D. O’Malley, Michael Servetus: A Translation of His Geographical, Medical and Astrological Writings (Philadelphia, 1953).

II. Secondary Literature. The most readable biography is Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511–1553 (Boston, 1953: repr., 1960), which also contains a good list of periodical literature, including the sixty-eight articles and six books of the assiduous nineteenth-century Servetus scholar Henri Tollin. The following emphasize various aspects of Servetus’ life: B. Becker, ed., Autour de Michel Servet et de Sebastien Castellion (Haarlem, 1953); Eloy Bullón y Fernández, Miguel Servet y la geografia del Renacimiento, 3rd ed. (Madrid, 1945): Pierre Cavard, Le Procès de Michel Servet de Vienne (Vienne, 1953): and Juan-Manuel Palacios Sánchez, El ilustre aragonés Miguel Servet (Huesca, 1956).

Two works that place the doctrines of Servetus in their wider theological context are Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism I (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), 3–4 and passim: and George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962).

Vicente R. Pilapil

Michael Servetus

views updated

Michael Servetus


Spanish Physician and Theologian

Michael Servetus, or Miguel Serveto, was a person of many interests who is credited with the discovery of pulmonary circulation, the process of blood going to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Servetus's life was one of controversy—from the question of his place of birth, to the end of his life when he was burned at the stake for heresy.

The traditional site of his birth is Tudela, Navarre, in southern Spain, although some of his writings indicate he was born in Villaneuva, Spain, in 1511. Some of his statements lead others to think he was born in 1509. The son of a notary, he was sent to Toulouse, France, to study law but became interested in theology. His friend and mentor was a Franciscan monk Juan de Quintana, who took Servetus to the coronation of Emperor Charles V at Bologna. Disgusted with the extravagance and worldliness of the pope and church, he left Quintana and traveled to Lyons, Geneva, and Basel. These latter cities in Switzerland were the center of the Protestant reformation, with such leaders as John Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin (1509-1564).

Through his biblical studies, Servetus concluded that the Trinity was not described in the Bible and angered both the Catholics and Protestants with his persistent arguments. But Servetus had a stubborn personality and was determined to voice and print his unpopular views.

Assuming the name Michel de Villeneuve and sometimes Villanovanus, he went to the University of Paris to study then moved to Lyons to work as an editor for the famous publishers, the Trechsel brothers. The editing duties led to his interest in medicine. There, while editing and reading hundreds of medical manuscripts, he met the medical humanist Symphorien Champier (1471-1539) who encouraged him go back to Paris to study medicine under several distinguished anatomists.

In 1537 he published a work supporting the use of syrups for curative purposes, the eating of "correct foods" including citrus, and maintained that sickness was the perversion of natural functions of the body organs, a basic contention of Galen (129-199?). He became an exciting and interesting teacher and lecturer, but Servetus's views on astrology led to his condemnation for teaching of medicine as a function of astrology. In 1538 he was charged and dismissed for lecturing on astrology.

Servetus then moved to Lyons, a port center more accepting of dissenting views, where he practiced medicine. For a while he lived at Vienne and served as personal physician to Archbishop Pierre Palmier. Establishing a general practice, he worked for the next 12 years and became a respected member of the medical community. He was elected by his colleagues to the Confraternity of Saint Luke, serving as supervisor to the apothecaries and overseeing work with indigent patients at the hospital.

In 1553 he wrote a book called The Restoration of Christianity, which discussed the pulmonary transit of the lungs within the framework of how the Holy Spirit entered man. According to the Bible, God breathed into man the breath of life or soul. Therefore, he reasoned that there must be a point of contact between the air and blood. Galen had surmised that the blood went through the septum, the dividers of the chambers of the heart. Challenging Galen's idea that this middle wall or septum was not suitable for such passing, he concluded that blood was pumped from the right side of the heart to the lungs through an artery and picked up the vital spirit or air. The "vital spirit" was then received in the left side of the heart, which then pumped blood into the arteries of the entire body.

This same document, along with letters to John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, was his downfall. His letters fell into the hands of the inquisitor in Lyons and his books were seized. He was tried and convicted of heresy but managed to escape with his life.

He decided Italy would be a safe place, but ended up going by way of Geneva, the hotbed of Protestant ideas. He was recognized and arrested. Calvin declared that Servetus must be put to death. He was given the opportunity to retract his ideas and on October 27, 1553, was burned at the stake while still declaring he was right and would never recant.


Michael Servetus

views updated

Michael Servetus

The Spanish religious philosopher Michael Servetus (ca. 1511-1553), often called the first Unitarian, denied the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. His views made him abhorrent to both Catholics and Protestants.

Michael Servetus was born at Villanueva. The son of a notary, he became a law student in Toulouse, where he developed an avid interest in the Bible. A Franciscan named Juan de Quintana befriended him in 1525. Quintana became confessor to Emperor Charles V in 1530, and that year Servetus accompanied Quintana to Bologna for Charles's coronation. There the pomp surrounding the Pope repelled him and tended to alienate him from the Roman Catholic Church. This journey was decisive in shaping Servetus's thought, for he also visited Augsburg, where he came into immediate contact with Protestantism, which impressed him favorably. He soon became acquainted with the leading spirit of Rhenish Protestantism, Martin Bucer.

Servetus then published a book that separated him philosophically not only from Catholicism but also from all the current reforming movements: De Trinitatis erroribus (1531; On the Errors of the Trinity). Its erudition was astonishing in light of the fact that its author was so young. But its thesis horrified Servetus's contemporaries, making him in their eyes a heretic. Servetus viewed Jesus as a man upon whom God had bestowed divine wisdom. Jesus came forth as a prophet bearing God's precious gift, but he did not partake of God's immortality.

If Servetus denied Jesus' equality to the godhead, he yielded to none in his praise of Jesus, calling him the Light of the World. Servetus insisted that those who believed in the Trinity were tritheists who could not escape the logic that they denied the One True God.

Because of these views Servetus was forced to take flight, moving in 1532 from Switzerland to France. There he lived for a time unmolested, traveling in 1536 to Paris to study medicine. He met John Calvin briefly, but Servetus concentrated for a time on medicine rather than on religious reform. He became assistant to the physician Johann Günther and continued to study avidly, taking up theology and Hebrew as well as medicine.

In 1546 Servetus wrote to Calvin, sending him elaborate manuscripts on his theological views. Calvin answered without warmth, letting Servetus know he would not be welcome in Geneva. The reformer very probably, through correspondence, was partially responsible for Servetus's arrest by the inquisitor general of Lyons on April 4, 1553. On April 7 Servetus escaped, turning up 4 months later in Geneva. He was seized, tried, and on Oct. 27, 1553, burned alive with the acquiescence of Calvin.

Further Reading

A scholarly biography of Servetus is Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (1953; new foreword, 1960). Also useful is John F. Fulton, Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr (1953). A good account of Servetus's theology is in Louis Israel Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements (1925).

Additional Sources

Friedman, Jerome, Michael Servetus: a case study in total heresy, Geneve: Droz, 1978. □

Servetus, Michael

views updated

Servetus, Michael, or Miguel Serveto (1511–53). Christian theologian. He was born in Spain and studied at Saragossa, Toulouse, and Paris. He turned from law to medicine which he practised intermittently throughout his life. During his travels he met Bucer and perhaps some other Anabaptist leaders. His interest in theology led him to produce De Trinitatis Erroribus (1531, On the Erroneous Understanding of the Trinity), in which he argued that the Son and the Holy Spirit are modes in which God manifests himself in creation, redemption, and sanctification, and that the Trinity is not made up of ‘persons’. He reiterated these arguments in Christianismi Restitutio (1546, The Restoration of Christianity), by which time he had also argued against predestination and infant baptism. He was arrested, first by the Inquisition, and then (when he escaped to Geneva) by the Protestants. He was convicted and burnt to death, his death provoking debate about the bounds of tolerance.

Servetus, Michael

views updated

Servetus, Michael (1511–53) Spanish physician and theologian. Servetus published (1531–32) his unorthodox opinions concerning the Trinity. In medicine, he discovered that blood circulates through the lungs. Forced to flee from the Inquisition, Servetus was equally unwelcome among Reformation theologians. Under the orders of John Calvin, he was arrested and tried in Geneva and burned as a heretic.

About this article

Michael Servetus

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic Share Topic