out of the flames

flames_coverThe printing press was really a bummer for European theocracy. Before Gutenberg, most people hadn’t read the bible, monks had to copy manuscripts by hand, and artists and academics had narrow reach; intellectual isolation made repressing dissent easy. But with printing came easier distribution of ideas and more academic study, challenging church rule and church rules. 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” by church law), a collision of desire for eternal happiness, an intellectually isolated culture, and greed. Opposed to this obvious corruption, Luther in 1517 published his 95 Theses, kicking off the Protestant Reformation and decades/centuries of religious upheaval and/or inquisition.

Servetus was born in 1511, read in four languages as a child (including, scandalously, Hebrew), and studied under intellectual and radical luminaries. By the age of 22, he’d carved out a theology opposing christian staples like infant baptism and the holy trinity, codified in the treatise On the Errors of the Trinity. The book put him on the wrong side of the Inquisition, and so he spent the rest of his life under an assumed identity, living as a lawyer, doctor, academic, and editor/translator. His masterwork, The Restoration of Christianity, was published semi-anonymously in 1553, and was so scandalous as to be printed in secret and sent to booksellers hidden inside bales of hay. The book held both a scathing critique of catholic doctrine and the a precise and accurate description of how blood circulates through the heart, a discovery usually credited to William Harvey seventy years later. I don’t know how a groundbreaking description of pulmonary circulation ends up in a sacrilegious theological treatise, but it happened. The circulation thing was mostly ignored; the sacrilegious parts were not.


Calvin, born 1509, was also intellectually precocious and a child of privilege. He trained as a lawyer and gave no indication of radical predispositions. But after his first book, about the playwright Seneca, failed, Calvin became a dogmatic anti-Catholic. His theology was strict, ascetic and deeply pessimistic: one foundational principle is “total depravity,” the idea that all humans are necessarily evil and saved only through the grace of God’s will. In 1536, Calvin published his magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion.


Much of Calvin’s reputation  as a religious zealot and totalitarian theocrat owes to the hard-drinking town of Geneva. Concerned about the town’s reputation for rowdiness, leaders asked Calvin to act as a sort of moral consultant, and Calvin approached his new job with all the zeal of a man convinced of his own rightneousness who is also given absolute power. Put off by his fundamentalism, the town’s citizens asked him to leave, but when the debauchery recommenced, they made a fateful decision to go for another round with Calvin. This time, he installed a Calvino-fascist theocracy full of repressive laws, 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. It was The Handmaid’s Tale with slightly less focus on sexual conquest and perversion.

•     •     •

When Calvin was working on Institutes, he sent a draft to Servetus, with whom he was acquainted. Servetus send the manuscript back with all manner of corrections and asides and criticisms, like a hungover English teacher grading a bad essay from a student they don’t like. Since that time, Calvin loathed Servetus, and aimed to destroy him for that insolence.

Which he ended up doing. Upon the anonymous publication of Restoration, Calvin conspired to lead the Inquisition to the “anonymous” author. Servetus was arrested, then escaped; in his absence officials burned him in effigy and destroyed his personal library and all copies of his book. Now on the lam, Servetus, for reasons we may never know, went to Geneva. Calvin recognized him and he was jailed yet again. Geneva did not have legal standing to try Servetus, so Calvin authored a set of baseless and inane charges to justify his arrest—including living a “besotted and dissolute” life and accusations of sexual improprieties due to his bachelorhood.

An English major would call the trial Kafkaesque, anyone else would call it a travesty. Calvin lorded over it like a preening powermonger while Servetus, with perhaps too much faith in the rule of law, defended himself. Among the many injustices and indignities he suffered including discussing his impotence-inducing “rupture” in open court to defend against charges of sex crimes. 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 Servetus to physical and mental decline. 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 hope that in a detached, academic part of his mind, he found some virtue or peace in dying a martyr at the hands of intellectual reprobates, but probably it was just 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, if not for the printing press. Instead, Luther can widely disseminate 95 Theses, Servetus and Calvin and dozens of others publish their own philosophies. Anti-church ideas, rather than being discussed in secret, 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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