Childhood & Early Life
Michael Servetus was born as Miguel Servet, possibly in Villanueva de Sigena, located in the Kingdom of Aragon, now the Spanish province of Huesca. Some also identify his place of birth as Tudela, Kingdom of Navarre, while others believe that he was born in Tudela, but raised in Villanueva.
Based upon his testimony to the French inquisition, most scholars believe that he was born in 1511. But others point out that he might have tried to mislead the inquisitors and his actual year of birth was sometime between 1506 and 1509.
His father, Antón Serveto, a notary of the lower nobility, worked at the nearby Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena. His mother’s name was Catalina Conesa. He had four brothers called Juan, Pedro, Antón, and Francisco as well as three sisters called Catalina, Jeronima and Juana
It is possible he had his early education at Grammar Studium in Sariñena, located near Villanueva de Sijena Thereafter in 1520, he moved to the Stadium Generale of Arts, which would eventually become University of Zaragoza, earning his B.A. degree in Liberal Arts in 1523 and M.A. in 1524.
Sometime in 1525, he entered the service of the well-known Franciscan friar, Juan de Quintana, remaining with him till 1527. Thereafter, he moved to France in order to study law at the University of Toulouse. While there, he also started delving deeper into the concept of the Trinity.
In 1530, when Juan de Quintana was appointed as the confessor of King Charles V at his coronation as the Holy Roman Emperor at Bologna, Michael Servetus too joined the imperial retinue, serving as Quintana’s page or secretary. But disgusted by the show of pomp, he soon left Quintana’s service.
After leaving Quintana’s service, he started on a tour, visiting Lyon, Geneva, Basel and Strasbourg, concurrently working on his first book, ‘De Trinitatis Erroribus’ (On the Errors of the Trinity), which was published in May 1531. During this period, he also met many Protestant reformers.
According to ‘De Trinitatis Erroribus’, Word is a mode of God’s expression while Spirit is the power within men and Son is the union of Word with Jesus, the man. It angered both the Catholics and Protestants.
To avoid inquisition, he published a revised formulation called, ‘Dialogorum de Trinitate in 1532; but it did not help. In 1553, he escaped to Paris, where he enrolled at Collège de Calvi under the assumed name, Michel de Villeneuve. Shortly, a crackdown on heretics began, prompting him to leave Paris.
Moving to Lyons, he started working as a corrector and editor under the famous printer, the Trechsel brothers, correcting many scientific works, also preparing three editions of the Bible. During this period, he struck up a friendship with Symphorien Champier and became highly interested in medicine.
In 1535, he published a translation of Ptolemy’s ‘Geographia’. In the following year, he moved to Paris in order to study medicine. Later in the same year, he published his first medical work, ‘In Leonardum Fucsium Apologia’, in which he expounded his belief in the healing powers of certain herbs.
In Paris, concurrently with studying medicine, he continued to write; publishing 'Syruporum universia ratio' in 1537 and 'Apologetica disceptatio pro astrologia' in 1538. For the latter book, he was reprimanded by the authorities for practicing judicial astrology and all the copies were confiscated.
On completing his medical studies in 1538, Michael Servetus began practicing medicine at Charlieu. After three years, he moved to Vienne, where he was appointed personal physician to Pierre Palmier, Archbishop of Vienne and Guy de Maugiron, the lieutenant governor of Dauphiné. During this period, he began corresponding John Calvin.
Although outwardly he continued to behave as a conforming Catholic in private he continued with his theological studies, publishing 'Biblia sacra ex Sanyes Pagnini tralation and 'Biblia sacra ex postremis doctorum' in 1542. Next in 1545, he published ‘Biblia Sacra cum Glossis’.
Sometime in early 1540s, he also started working on his magnum opus, ‘Cristianismi Restitutio’, publishing a draft in 1546, which he sent to John Calvin. It angered the pastor so much that he vowed that if Servetus came to Geneva he would not leave the city alive.
Cristianismi Restitutio & Reception
In ‘Cristianismi Restitutio’, which was finally published on 3 January 1553, Servetus rejected the doctrines of Trinity and predestination, both of which were considered fundamental to Christianity and emphasized by Calvin. He also argued that no one is condemned by God unless he condemns himself through thought, speech or action.
In ‘Cristianismi Restitutio’, he had also introduced a groundbreaking view on pulmonary circulation; albeit as a way of explaining his theological belief, going against the traditionally accepted views of Aelius Galenus. He might have based it on the work of Ibn Al Nafis, a thirteen century Muslim physician.
Servetus’ views were deemed as a challenge to the very essence of Christianity, leading to him being declared a heretic on 16 February 1553. He was subsequently arrested on 4 April 1553; but managed to escape on 7 April.
Death & Legacy
On 17 June, 1553, Michael Servetus was tried in absentia, mainly because of the seventeen letters he had written to Calvin, expressing his views. He was found guilty of heterodoxy and sentenced to be burned on stake along with his books.
After remaining out of sight for two months, Servetus decided to move to Italy. While crossing Switzerland, he stopped at Geneva, where he was recognized while attending Calvin’s sermon on 13 August 1553 and was arrested.
His trial began on 14 August 1553 and continued till 25 October 1553, in which Calvin played an important role and pressed for his execution. At the end, he was condemned for heresy and sentenced to be burned at stake for denying not only the Trinity, but also infant baptism.
On 27 October 1553, Servetus was burned alive along with his books at the Plateau of Champel, Geneva. His last words were believed to be, "Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me”.
His execution was denounced by many well-known theologians, especially Sebastian Castellio, while Calvin was especially criticized for his part in it. At the same time, many anti-Trinitarian thinkers became more cautious. Later his wrings influenced the formation of the Unitarian movement in Poland and Transylvania.