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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 142. Servetus as a Geographer.


As Servetus was repulsed by the Reformers of Switzerland and Germany, he left for France and assumed the name of Michel de Villeneuve. His real name and his obnoxious books disappeared from the sight of the world till they emerged twenty years later at Vienne and at Geneva. He devoted himself to the study of mathematics, geography, astrology, and medicine.

In 1534 he was in Paris, and challenged the young Calvin to a disputation, but failed to appear at the appointed hour.

He spent some time at Lyons as proof-reader and publisher of the famous printers, Melchior and Caspar Trechsel. He issued through them, in 1535, under the name of "Villanovanus," a magnificent edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, with a self-laudatory preface, which concludes with the hope that "no one will underestimate the labor, though pleasant in itself, that is implied in the collation of our text with that of earlier editions, unless it be some Zoilus of contracted brow, who cannot look without envy upon the zealous labors of others." A second and improved edition appeared in 1541.10541054    The following is the full title of the second edition which I found (together with a copy of the first) in the library of the American Geographical Society at New York:—
   "Claudii | Ptolemae | Alexan | drini | Geographicoe Enarrationis, | Libri Octo. | Ex Bilibaldi Pircke | ymheri tralatione, sed ad Graeca et prisca exemplaria à Michaele Villanouano | secundò recogniti, et locis innumeris denuò castigati. Adiecta insuper ab eodem scho | lia, quibus et difficilis ille Primus Liber nunc primum explicatur, et exoleta Urbium | nomina ad nostri seculi morem exponuntur. Quinquaginta illae quoque cum ueterum tum | recentium Tabulae adnectantur, variisque incolentium ritus et mores explicantur … . Prostant Lugduni apud Hugonem à Porta. | MDXLI." fol. Dedicated "Amplissimo illustrissimoque ac reverendissimo D. Dno Petro Palmerio, Archiepiscopo et Comiti Viennensi Michael Villanouanus Medicus G. D." Dated "Viennae pridie Cal. Martii, MDXLI." The last page has the imprimatur of Caspar Trechsel, Viennae, 1541. The work is illustrated with fifty maps. Willis (pp. 86 sqq.) gives condensed translations of some passages, which I have used, and compared with the original. Tollin represents Servetus as a forerunner of Karl Ritter in comparative geography, Michael Servet als Geograph, 1875 (pp. 182).

The discoveries of Columbus and his successors gave a strong impulse to geographical studies, and called forth several editions of the work of Ptolemy the famous Alexandrian geographer and astronomer of the second century.10551055    Editions were published at Rome, Bologna, Strassburg (1523 and 1525), Basel (1533, with a preface of Erasmus; 1546), Venice (1558). The last and best Graeco-Latin edition of Ptolemy is by Carl Müller, Paris, 1883 sqq. The edition of Villeneuve is based upon that of Pirkheimer of Nürnberg, which appeared at Strassburg, 1525, with fifty charts, but contains considerable improvements, and gave to the author great reputation. It is a very remarkable work, considering that Servetus was then only twenty-six years of age. A year later Calvin astonished the world with an equally precocious and far more important and enduring work—the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The most interesting features in the edition of Villeneuve are his descriptions of countries and nations. The following extracts give a fair idea, and have some bearing on the church history of the times: —


"The Spaniard is of a restless disposition, apt enough of understanding, but learning imperfectly or amiss, so that you shall find a learned Spaniard almost anywhere sooner than in Spain.10561056    "Ut alibi potius quam in ipsa Hispania Hispanum doctum invenias." Half-informed, he thinks himself brimful of information, and always pretends to more knowledge than he has in fact. He is much given to vast projects never realized; and in conversation he delights in subtleties and sophistry. Teachers commonly prefer to speak Spanish rather than Latin in the schools and colleges of the country; but the people in general have little taste for letters, and produce few books themselves, mostly procuring those they want, from France … . The people have many barbarous notions and usages, derived by implication from their old Moorish conquerors and fellow-denizens … . The women have a custom, that would be held barbarous in France, of piercing their ears and hanging gold rings in them, often set with precious stones. They besmirch their faces, too, with minium and ecruse—red and white lead—and walk about on clogs a foot or a foot and a half high, so that they seem to walk above rather than on the earth. The people are extremely temperate, and the women never drink wine … . Spaniards are notably the most superstitious people in the world in their religious notions; but they are brave in the field, of signal endurance under privation and difficulty, and by their voyages of discovery have spread their name over the face of the globe."

"England is wonderfully well-peopled, and the inhabitants are long-lived. Tall in stature, they are fair in complexion, and have blue eyes. They are brave in war, and admirable bowmen ...."

"The people of Scotland are hot-tempered, prone to revenge, and fierce in their anger; but valiant in war, and patient beyond belief of cold, hunger, and fatigue. They are handsome in person, and their clothing and language are the same as those of the Irish; their tunics being dyed yellow, their legs bare, and their feet protected by sandals of undressed hide. They live mainly on fish and flesh. They are not a particularly religious people ...."

"The Italians make use in their everyday talk of the most horrid oaths and imprecations. Holding all the rest of the world in contempt, and calling them barbarians, they themselves have nevertheless been alternately the prey of the French, the Spaniards, and the Germans ...."10571057    "Irrident Neapolitani Calabros, Calabri Appulos, hos autem omnes Romani, Romanos Hetrusci, quos et alii vicissim irrident: quin et mortales caeteros omnes irrident Itali, contemnunt et barbaros appellant: cum sint ipsi tamen nunc Hispanis, nunc Gallis, nunc Germanis praeda expositi .... Italia in universum magis adhuc superstitiosa gens quam pugnat. Superba Roma, gentium imperio viduata, sedes facta summi pontificis."

"Germany is overgrown by vast forests, and defaced by frightful swamps. Its climate is as insufferably hot in summer as it is bitterly cold in winter .... Hungary is commonly said to produce oxen; Bavaria, swine; Franconia, onions, turnips, and licorice; Swabia, harlots; Bohemia, heretics; Switzerland, butchers; Westphalia, cheats; and the whole country gluttons and drunkards … . The Germans, however, are a religious people; not easily turned from opinions they have once espoused, and not readily persuaded to concord in matters of schism; every one valiantly and obstinately defending the heresy he has himself adopted."10581058    "Sunt enim Germani in Dei cultum propensi, semel tamen imbutas opiniones non facile deserunt, nec in schisimate queunt ad concordiam reduci, sed haeresim quisque suam valide tuetur."


This unfavorable account of Germany, borrowed in part from Tacitus, was much modified and abridged in the second edition, in which it appears as "a pleasant country with a temperate climate." Of the Swabians he speaks as a singularly gifted people.10591059    "Suabia, ingenio singulari praedita, praestantissima Germaniae a Plutarcho dicta." The fling at the ignorance and superstition of the Spaniards, his own countrymen, was also omitted.

The most interesting part of this geographical work on account of its theological bearing, is the description of Palestine. He declared in the first edition that "it is mere boasting and untruth when so much of excellence is ascribed to this land; the experience of merchants and travellers who have visited it, proving it to be inhospitable, barren, and altogether without amenity. Wherefore you may say that the land was promised indeed, but is of little promise when, spoken of in everyday terms." He omitted this passage in the second edition in deference to Archbishop Palmier. Nevertheless, it was made a ground of accusation at the trial of Servetus, for its apparent contradiction with the Mosaic account of the land, flowing with milk and honey."



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