Miguel Servet (Michael Servetus)
When you read Miguel Servet’s biography, you get the feeling that you’re learning about the life of an especially noteworthy scholar. So why did it go almost completely unnoticed? Maybe because history doesn’t tend to favor those who stand alone.
But let’s talk about this historical figure; a theologian, doctor, and scientist who discovered pulmonary blood circulation. He was later condemned to burn at the stake, curiously by reformers. Servet was born in 1511 in Huesca (Aragón) to a family of old Christians. A restless young student, he was placed under the tutelage of the Franciscan scholar Juan Quintana.
At 17, Miguel was sent to the most modern university of the time, the University of Toulouse. There, he found a passion for theology and one idea in particular would obsess him: the notion of the Holy Trinity as an obstacle for the understanding of three major religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He studied the bible and discovered that the Trinity is not mentioned in its pages.
Juan Quintana, a proclaimed confessor of the king, required Servet’s assistance as part of Charles V’s entourage during his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Although the court was decidedly humanist in character (inspired by Erasmus of Rotterdam), Miguel believed that its great adoration of the pope was excessive. He wasn’t much of a fan of the clergy’s opulence either. He ended up deciding to go to Switzerland to join the Protestants.
In Basel however, his ideas didn’t mesh well with the Protestants, who refused to reject the Holy Trinity. So he decided to go to the tolerant city of Strasbourg, where he published his first theological work. Servet however soon found himself condemned by both the Protestant church and wanted by the Catholic inquisition. He had to escape to Paris and establish himself under a false name, “Michel de Villeneuve”.
He radically changed his life, switching his focus of interest by studying medicine. He had a number of religious debates however with another controversial figure, John Calvin. But being wanted by authorities and being friends with someone else wanted by authorities, was too much for Servet. He left Paris for Lyon, taking a job at a printing press. He didn’t last long there, where scathing annotations in one book earned him new enemies.
In 1536, he returned to Paris to pick up his medical studies. It turned out to be a wise decision; he began to make a name for himself as a doctor and went on to discover that blood oxygenation takes place in the lungs and not in the heart. But then he made one small slipup; his writings drew a connection between medicine and astrology, which got him expelled from the university. The inquisition absolved him of guilt, but he was condemned by Paris’ parliament. So he went back to Lyon to practice medicine. His fame reached the archbishop of Vienna, for whom he would even serve as personal doctor.
In Vienna he earned fame and fortune as an editor and a doctor. Servet even had time to rekindle an old and fateful friendship; he began maintaining correspondence with Calvin on the topic of the Holy Trinity. The situation was much different than the days of Paris. Calvin had become a top religious leader and he would not accept criticism of his own dogma. Calvin had sent Servet a copy of one his books, and when Servet returned it loaded with corrections, Calvin cut off the correspondence and announced that if Servet ever showed up in Geneva, he wouldn’t leave the city alive.
We don’t know whether or not Servet was aware of the threat, but we do know that he boldly published a work entitled Christianismi Restitutio with 30 of his letters to Calvin. The religious leader responded by revealing to the Catholic Inquisition the true identity of Michel de Villeneuve. He managed to escape, but insisted on going to Geneva, where he was condemned by Protestants to burn at the stake for not recognizing the Trinity or baptism. They also say that a regretful Calvin attempted to free his old friend from the stake… Calvin died of illness in 1564.
The verdict was upheld and Servet was burned to death on October 27, 1553. A few months later, the Catholic authorities burned an effigy of the doctor.
Over time, the historical figure has slowly begun to gain recognition (the University Hospital of Zaragoza bears his name and there’s a foundation named after him) and his role as a humanist has increasingly become known. Servet is getting closer and closer to finally achieving the admiration that he deserves.