The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (29 September, 151127 October , 1553), (Miguel Servet in Spanish) was a theologian, physician and humanist. His interests included many sciences: astronomy and meteorology; geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible, mathematics, anatomy and medicine. It has been said of him that: "Servetus was in intellectual endowments undoubtedly the peer of the greatest men of his century."


Early life and education

Servetus was born in Villanueva de Sijena , Huesca, Spain in 1511 (some sources give an earlier date based on Servetus' own claim of 1509). At the age of 13, in 1524, his father Antonio Servet (alias Revés, i.e. "Reverse"), who was a notary and lawyer, sent young Michael to college at the University of Zaragoza/Lerida. Servetus had two brothers: one who became a notary like their father, and another who was a Catholic priest. Servetus was very gifted in languages and studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew. At the age of fifteen, Michael entered the service of a Franciscan friar by the name of Juan de Quintana , an Erasmian, and read the entire Bible in its original languages. He later he attended Toulouse University in 1526 where he studied law.

Michael came to believe Arian theology, which maintains that the belief of the Trinity is not based on biblical teachings. In 1529, after his education at Toulouse, he travelled through Germany and Italy with Quintana, who was then Charles V's confessor in the imperial retinue. In October 1530 he visited Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, staying there for about ten months, and probably supporting himself as a proofreader for a local printer. By this time he was already spreading his beliefs. In May 1531 he met Martin Bucer and Fabricius Capito in Strassburg. Then two months later, in July 1531, he published De trinitatis erroribus ("On the Errors of the Trinity"). The next year he published De trinitate (1532, "On the Trinity") and, De Iustitia regni Christi ("Dialogs on the Trinity"). He took on the pseudonym Michel de Villeneuve (i.e., "Michael from Villanueva"), in order to avoid persecution by the Church because of these religious works. He studied at the College Calvi in Paris in 1533. After an interval he returned to Paris to study medicine in 1536. In Paris his teachers included Sylvius, Fernel , and Guinter , who hailed him with Vesalius as his most able assistant in dissections.


After his studies in medicine he started a medical practice. He became personal physician to Archibishop Palmier of Vienne, and was also physician to Guy de Maugiron , the lieutenant governor of Dauphiné. While he practiced medicine near Lyon for about fifteen years, he also published two other works dealing with Ptolemy's Geography. Servetus dedicated his first edition of Ptolemy and his edition of the Bible to his patron Hugues de la Porte , and dedicated his second edition of Ptolemy's Geography to his other patron, Archibishop Palmier. While in Lyon, Symphorien Champier , a medical humanist, had been Servetus' patron, and the pharmacological tracts which Servetus wrote there were written in defense of Champier against Leonard Fuchs .

While also working as a proofreader, he published a couple more books which dealt with medicine and pharmacology. In 1553 he published another religious work with Arian views entitled Christianismi restitutio. He had a copy sent to John Calvin, initiating a correspondence between the two. Calvin wrote 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."

Imprisonment and execution

On 4 April 1553 he was convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic authorities, and imprisoned in Vienne. He escaped from prison on 17 June 1553. Meaning to flee to Italy, Servetus stopped in at Geneva, where Calvin and his Reformers had denounced him. On 13 August 1553 he attended a sermon by Calvin at Geneva. He was immediately recognized and arrested after the service (The Heretics, p. 326.) and was again imprisoned and had all his property confiscated.

Unfortunately for Servetus, at this time Calvin was fighting to maintain his weakening power in Geneva. Calvin's opponents used Servetus as a pretext for attacking the Geneva Reformer's theocratic government. It became a matter of prestige for Calvin to assert his power in this respect. He was forced to push the condemnation of Servetus with all the means at his command." (The Heretics, p. 326.)

At his trial, Michael Servetus was condemned on two counts, for spreading and preaching anti-Trinitarian and anti-paedobaptism (infant baptism). (Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic The Beacon Press, 1953, p. 207.) paedobaptism, Michael Servetus had said, "It is an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity" (Ibid., p. 186.)

On 27 October 1553 he was burned at the stake just outside Geneva. Calvin had supported Servetus execution (in accordance with the common practice of the day), as on February 13, 1546 (seven years prior to Servetus being arrested in Geneva) Calvin had written his friend, Farel: "If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight." (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Baker Book House, 1950), p. 371.) And during Servetus' heresy trial, Calvin also wrote: "I hope that the verdict will call for the death penalty." (Walter Nigg, The Heretics (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1962), p. 328.) However, Calvin still pleaded with the Geneva City Council to execute him by means of decapitation because it was more humane than burning at the stake, but the council rejected this plea.

Modern relevance

Due to this theological beliefs and eventual execution by burning for heresy, he is regarded by modern Unitarian Universalists to be the first Unitarian martyr. Several Unitarian Universalist churches and societies in the United States (and possibly elsewhere) are named after him.

Servetus' was the first to believe in pulmonary circulation, but was not taken seriously in his lifetime. It was not until William Harvey's dissections that it was widely accepted by physicians.

External links

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