out of the flames

flames_coverThe printing press was really a bummer for European theocracy. Before it dropped, most christians hadn’t read the bible (probably also true now) and artists and academics had little outlet to discuss religion. Monks had to copy manuscripts by hand, and the intellectual isolation made repressing dissent simple for the church. The printing press brought easier, wider distribution of ideas and increased scholarly study. Two people who helped upset that pre-printing status quo were John Calvin and Michael Servetus.

To understand the story of Calvin and Servetus, it helps to step back to Martin Luther (1483-1546; “I got 95 theses but a transubstantiation ain’t one”). For centuries, the church had allowed members to purchase “indulgences” to repent for sins, meaning they could buy their way out of acts of penitence. The church also unofficially sanctioned—in a nod-and-wink, plausibly deniable sort of way—free agent “pardoners” who traveled the country selling indulgences. Like any good snake-oil salesman, the pardoners promised whatever it took to make the sale: eternal salvation, lifetime forgiveness of future sins, even tickets out of hell/limbo for long-dead relatives (none of which were “legitimate” indulgences by church law). And thus did the laity’s desire to reach heaven, an intellectually isolated culture, and the church’s desire for piles of money collide. Luther was opposed to this obvious corruption, among many other things, and in 1517 published his 95 Theses. Theses kicked off the Protestant Reformation, in which Servetus and Calvin would play major roles.

Servetus, born 1511, could read in four languages as a child (including Hebrew, particularly scandalous in a roman catholic world), and studied under several intellectual and mostly radical luminaries of the time. By the age of 22, he’d carved out a theology opposed to such catholic staples as infant baptism and the holy trinity, eventually publishing a treatise on the topic (On the Errors of the Trinity). That little book got him on the wrong side of the Inquisition, and he spent most of his life under an assumed identity, living as a lawyer, doctor, academic, and editor/translator of famous historical works. In 1553, he semi-anonymously published his masterwork, The Restoration of Christianity, a book so scandalous as to be printed in secret and sent to booksellers hidden in bales of hay. Besides being a scathing critique of fundamental tenets of catholicism, Servetus also managed to describe, in precise and accurate anatomical detail, the circulation of blood through the heart. William Harvey is generally credited with that discovery, and he didn’t do it until some 70 years later. I don’t know how, exactly, one works a groundbreaking description of pulmonary circulation into a sacrilegious theological treatise, but, Servetus did. The heart-circulation thing went by mostly unnoticed, but the rest of Restoration did not, and that was his undoing.


Calvin (born 1509) was also intellectually precocious, a child of privilege, and seemed more interested in fame and power than knowledge and/or salvation. He trained as a lawyer and gave no indication of radical predispositions. When his first book (about the playwright Seneca) failed, he experienced a religious conversion of sorts and became a dogmatic anti-Catholic (one foundation of Calvinism is “total depravity,” the idea that all humans are necessarily evil and saved only through the grace of God’s will). In 1536, he published his magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion.



Much of Calvin’s reputation owes to the hard-drinking town of Geneva. Geneva was known for being rowdy and dangerous and ungodly, so the town asked Calvin to serve as a sort of moral leader. He approached the task with the zeal of a man with an inviolable belief in his own righteousness given absolute power. Upset Genevans, put off by his aggressive and oppressive fundamentalism, quickly asked him to leave. Once freed from his tyranny, the town’s debauchery recommenced, and they made the fateful decision to go round two with Calvin. Things were even more to Calvin’s liking this time around. He installed a Calvino-fascist theocracy, full of repressive laws demanding piety and submission, secret police, excommunication and death penalties, and neighbors spying on one another while reporting back to Calvin on the sins (real or imagined) of their acquaintances. In short, Geneva was a great place if religious oppression is your cup of tea.

• • •

Servetus and Calvin had crossed paths briefly in university, and were later introduced via correspondence by a mutual acquaintance. Calvin loathed Servetus. Detested him. Hated him with perfervid passion, a feeling so rich and thick you could drizzle it over pancakes. Their relationship was never cordial, since they didn’t agree about much, but when Calvin was working on Institutes, he sent a manuscript to Servetus. The draft was returned marked up with all manner of asides, footnotes, and corrections, like a hungover English teacher grading a poorly-done essay by a student they already didn’t like. Calvin vowed to destroy Servetus for this act of insolence.

Which he ended up doing. Upon the anonymous publication of Restoration, Calvin conspired to lead the Inquisition to the author of that sinful text, which he knew to be Servetus. Servetus was arrested, but managed to escape (finding him gone, officials burned him in effigy, along with his personal library and all known copies of his book). With Servetus on the lam, his antagonistic relationship with Calvin—one of the few people who actually knew him—makes it all the more confusing that he would wander into Geneva. It’s not clear why he did, but it was clearly a mistake. Calvin recognized him and Servetus was jailed. But what would he be charged with? Geneva didn’t have any legal standing to try him, but that didn’t stop a retribution-minded Calvin from authoring a set of baseless and inane “charges” and sending him to court (the charges included living a “besotted and dissolute life” and accusations of sexual improprieties because he was unmarried, to which Servetus was forced to discuss in open court his impotence-inducing “rupture”. For fuck’s sake.)

The trial was what an English major would call “Kafkaesque”. Calvin lorded over it like a preening powermonger, and Servetus, with perhaps an overoptimistic faith in the rule of law, defended himself. He’d initially debated Calvin to a standstill in court, but the conditions of his imprisonment—solitary cell with no windows, little food, dirty clothing, insects—combined with the court’s foot dragging (he was jailed for more than three months) drove him to physical and mental decline. All the court records survive, and in his last, utterly depressing handwritten motion, Servetus requests, essentially, common human decency. Which he was denied, right up until he was burned at the stake along with every known copy of his book. I like to hope that in a detached, academic part of his mind, he was able to find some virtue or peace in dying a martyr at the hands of intellectual reprobates, but probably it was just virtueless agony.

• • •

What happened after Servetus was executed was also important. Restoration, which Calvin wanted to eliminate from the face of the earth, would not die. At least three copies survived, though the first of those did not show up until more than a century later in a random London bookshop (no one knows how it got there). One was Calvin’s own annotated copy. It’d be nice to think that Calvin recognized the importance of the work and couldn’t bear to part with it, but more likely he kept it as a sort of trophy of a vanquished adversary. The book itself and the ideas therein went on to become something of a touchstone for intellectuals throughout history: Leibniz noted Servetus’s description of pulmonary circulation; Voltaire wrote on the injustice against Servetus (though it was less pro-Servetus than anti-Calvin, whom Voltaire loathed); there was political intrigue involving the book and the ruler of Transylvania; and the ‘father’ of modern American medicine, William Osler, became obsessed with Servetus.

Servetus monument

In a sense, none of this is really about Servetus—it’s about the permanence of ideas and the cultural shift engendered by the printing press. It’s no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation, which nearly toppled the Catholic church, came on the heels of the printing press. A hypothetical Servetus born a century earlier would likely have been executed and crushed under the wheel of history, his ideas dying with him, his life even more anonymous. Instead, Luther can widely disseminate 95 Theses, Servetus and Calvin and dozens of others publish their own philosophies, and anti-church ideas, rather than being discussed in hushed tones in secret, in-person meetings, are instead distributed and disseminated and diffused throughout Europe and the world. Servetus’s book, his ideas, and his plight were still influencing intellectuals, clinicians, and religious movements centuries after his death, even if we’ve now largely forgotten about him.


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