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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 148. The Trial and Condemnation of Servetus at Vienne.


See D’artigny in Nouveaux Memoires d’histoire, etc.; Mosheim’s Neue Nachrichten, etc.; and Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 833–856.


Shortly after the publication of the "Restitution," the fact was made known to the Roman Catholic authorities at Lyons through Guillaume Trie, a native of Lyons and a convert from Romanism, residing at that time in Geneva. He corresponded with a cousin at Lyons, by the name of Arneys, a zealous Romanist, who tried to reconvert him to his religion, and reproached the Church of Geneva with the want of discipline. On the 26th of February, 1553, he wrote to Arneys that in Geneva vice and blasphemy were punished, while in France a dangerous heretic was tolerated, who deserved to be burned by Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, who blasphemed the holy Trinity, called Jesus Christ an idol, and the baptism of infants a diabolic invention. He gave his name as Michael Servetus, who called himself at present Villeneuve, a practising physician at Vienne. In confirmation he sent the first leaf of the "Restitution," and named the printer Balthasar Arnoullet at Vienne.11521152    "C’est un Espagnol Portugallois nomméMichael Servetus de son propre nom, mais il se nomme Villeneuve àprésent, faisant le Médecin. Il a demeuréquelque temps àLyon, maintenant il se tient àVienne, oùle livre dont je parle a étéimprimépar un quidam qui a làdresséimprimerie, nomméBalthazard Arnoullet. Et afin que vous ne pensiez que je en parle àcrédit, je vous envoye la première feuille pour enseigne." The specimens seemed to have been the title-page, the index, and, perhaps, a few pages, which did not prove the authorship of Villeneuve, nor his identity with Servetus. The three letters of Trie are published in French by D’Artigny (p. 79 sq.) and Mosheim (p. 90), and in Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 835-838, 840-844.

This letter, and two others of Trie which followed, look very much as if they had been dictated or inspired by Calvin. Servetus held him responsible.11531153    This was also the opinion of Bolsec and the pseudonymous Martinus Bellius, and is repeated by the Abbé d’Artigny, Wallace, Willis, and v. d. Linde, who charge Calvin with having deliberately and dishonorably betrayed Servetus. But this cannot be proven, and would involve a downright falsehood, of which Calvin was incapable. But Calvin denied the imputation as a calumny.11541154    He calls it a "futilis calumnia," and thinks it preposterous to suppose that he was in friendly correspondence with the popish authorities. "Unde mihi tanta cum papae satellitio repente familiaritas? unde etiam tanta gratia? Refut. error Mich. Serv., in Opera, VIII. 479. At the same time he speaks rather lightly of it, and thinks that it would not have been dishonorable to denounce so dangerous a heretic to the proper authorities. He also frankly acknowledges that he caused his arrest at Geneva.11551155    "Nec sane dissimulo, mea opera consilioque jure in carcerem fuisse conjectum!Ibid. VIII. 461. He could see no material difference in principle between doing the same thing, indirectly, at Vienne and, directly, at Geneva. He simply denies that he was the originator of the papal trial and of the letter of Trie; but he does not deny that he furnished material for evidence, which was quite well known and publicly made use of in the trial where Servetus’s letters to Calvin are mentioned as pieces justificatives. There can be no doubt that Trie, who describes himself as a comparatively unlettered man, got his information about Servetus and his book from Calvin, or his colleagues, either directly from conversation, or from pulpit denunciations. We must acquit Calvin of direct agency, but we cannot free him of indirect agency in this denunciation.11561156    Trechsel thinks that it can by no means be proven that Calvin caused the letter of Trie, but that he probably gave occasion to it by incidental and unintentional expressions. "Wenn auch Calvin," he says, I. 144, "wahrscheinlich durch gelegentliche und unabsichtliche Aeusserungen zur Entdeckung Servets Anlass gab, so ist es doch durchaus unerwiesen, dass er Trie’s Brief provocirt oder gar dictirt habe." Dyer, who is not friendly to Calvin, gives as the result of his examination of the case, this judgment (p. 314): "The Abbé d’Artigny goes further than the evidence warrants, in positively asserting that Trie’s letter was written at Calvin’s dictation, and in calling it Calvin’s letter in the name of Trie. It is just possible that Trie may have written the letter without Calvin’s knowledge, and the latter is therefore entitled to the benefit of the doubt. He cannot absolutely be proved to have taken the first step in delivering Servetus into the fangs of the Roman Catholic inquisition; but what we shall now have to relate will show that he at least aided and abetted it." Principal Cunningham (The Reformers, pp. 323 sqq.) goes into an elaborate argument to vindicate Calvin from the charge of complicity, in opposition to Principal Tulloch, who denounces the conduct of Calvin, if it could be proven (he leaves it undecided), as "one of the blackest pictures of treachery." An evident rhetorical exaggeration.

Calvin’s indirect agency, in the first, and his direct agency in the second arrest of Servetus admit of no proper justification, and are due to an excess of zeal for orthodoxy.

Arneys conveyed this information to the Roman Catholic authorities. The matter was brought to the knowledge of Cardinal Tournon, at that time archbishop of Lyons, a cruel persecutor of the Protestants, and Matthias Ory, a regularly trained inquisitor of the Roman see for the kingdom of France. They at once instituted judicial proceedings.

Villeneuve was summoned before the civil court of Vienne on the 16th of March. He kept the judges waiting for two hours (during which he probably destroyed all suspicious papers), and appeared without any show of embarrassment. He affirmed that he had lived long at Vienne, in frequent company with ecclesiastics, without incurring any suspicion for heresy, and had always avoided all cause of offence. His apartments were searched, but nothing was found to incriminate him. On the following day the printing establishment of Arnoullet was searched with no better result. On the return of Arnoullet from a journey he was summoned before the tribunal, but he professed ignorance.

Inquisitor Ory now requested Arneys to secure additional proof from his cousin at Geneva. Trie forwarded on the 26th of March several autograph letters of Servetus which, he said, he had great difficulty in obtaining from Calvin (who ought to have absolutely refused). He added some pages from Calvin’s Institutes with the marginal objections of Servetus to infant baptism in his handwriting. Ory, not yet satisfied, despatched a special messenger to Geneva to secure the manuscript of the Restitutio, and proof that Villeneuve was Servetus and Arnoullet his printer. Trie answered at once, on the last of March, that the manuscript of the Restitutio had been at Lausanne for a couple of years (with Viret), that Servetus had been banished from the churches of Germany (Basel and Strassburg) twenty-four years ago, and that Arnoullet and Guéroult were his printers, as he knew from a good source which he would not mention (perhaps Frellon of Lyons).

The cardinal of Lyons and the archbishop of Vienne, after consultation with Inquisitor Ory and other ecclesiastics, now gave orders on the 4th of April for the arrest of Villeneuve and Arnoullet. They were confined in separate rooms in the Palais Delphinal. Villeneuve was allowed to keep a servant, and to see his friends. Ory was sent forth, hastened to Vienne, and arrived there the next morning.

After dinner Villeneuve, having been sworn on the Holy Gospels, was interrogated as to his name, age, and course of life. In his answers he told some palpable falsehoods to mislead the judges, and to prevent his being identified with Servetus, the heretic. He omitted to mention his residence in Toulouse, where he had been known under his real name, as the books of the University would show. He denied that he had written any other books than those on medicine and geography, although he had corrected many. On being shown some notes he had written on Calvin’s Institutes about infant baptism, he acknowledged at last the authorship of the notes, but added that he must have written them inconsiderately for the purpose of discussion, and he submitted himself entirely to his holy Mother, the Church, from whose teachings he had never wished to differ.

At the second examination, on the sixth day of April, he was shown some of his epistles to Calvin. He declared, with tears in his eyes, that those letters were written when he was in Germany some twenty-five years ago, when there was printed in that country a book by a certain Servetus, a Spaniard, but from what part of Spain he did not know! At Paris he had heard Mons. Calvin spoken of as a learned man, and had entered into correspondence with him from curiosity, but begged him to keep his letters as confidential and as brotherly corrections.11571157    "Sub sigillo secreti et comme fraternelles [sic] corrections." He himself, however, published in the Restitutio, as we have seen, thirty letters of his to Calvin without Calvin’s permission. Calvin suspected, he continued, that I was Servetus, to which I replied, I was not Servetus, but would continue to personate Servetus in order to continue the discussion. Finally we fell out, got angry, abused each other, and broke off the correspondence about ten years ago. He protested before God and his judges that he had no intention to dogmatize or to teach anything against the Church or the Christian religion. He told similar lies when other letters were laid before him.

Servetus now resolved to escape, perhaps with the aid of some friends, after he had secured through his servant a debt of three hundred crowns from the Grand Prior of the monastery of St. Pierre. On the 7th of April, at four o’clock in the morning, he dressed himself, threw a night-gown over his clothes, and put a velvet cap upon his head, and, pretending a call of nature, he secured from the unsuspecting jailer the key to the garden. He leaped from the roof of the outhouse and made his escape through the court and over the bridge across the Rhone. He carried with him his golden chain around his neck, valued at twenty crowns, six gold rings on his fingers, and plenty of money in his pockets.

Two hours elapsed before his escape became known. An alarm was given, the gates were closed, and the neighboring houses searched; but all in vain.

Nevertheless the prosecution went on. Sufficient evidence was found that the "Restitution" had been printed in Vienne; extracts were made from it to prove the heresies contained therein. The civil court, without waiting for the judgment of the spiritual tribunal (which was not given until six months afterwards), sentenced Servetus on the 17th of June, for heretical doctrines, for violation of the royal ordinances, and for escape from the royal prison, to pay a fine of one thousand livres tournois to the Dauphin, to be carried in a cart, together with his books, on a market-day through the principal streets to the place of execution, and to be burnt alive by a slow fire.11581158    "Estre bruslétout vif àpetit-feu, tellement que son corps soit mis en cendre." The whole sentence of the tribunal is printed in Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 784-787. It was communicated to the Council of Geneva, as a ground for demanding the prisoner.

On the same day he was burnt in effigy, together with the five bales of his book, which had been consigned to Merrin at Lyons and brought back to Vienne.

The goods and chattels of the fugitive were seized and confiscated. The property he had acquired from his medical practice and literary labors amounted to four thousand crowns. The king bestowed them on the son of Monsieur de Montgiron, lieutenant-general of Dauphiné and presiding judge of the court.11591159    See Montgiron’s letter to the Council of Geneva in Opera, VIII. 791, and in Rilliet-Tweedie, p. 156.

Arnoullet was discharged on proving that he had been deceived by Guéroult, who seems to have escaped by flight. He took care that the remaining copies of the heretical book in France should be destroyed. Stephens, the famous publisher, who had come to Geneva in 1552, sacrificed the copies in his hands. Those that had been sent to Frankfort were burnt at the instance of Calvin.

On the 23d of December, two months after the execution of Servetus, the ecclesiastical tribunal of Vienne pronounced a sentence of condemnation on him.11601160    Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 851-856 (copied from d’Artigny, II. 123, and Mosheim, Neue Nachrichten, etc., p. 100 sq.). Villanovanus is therein condemned as "maximus haereticus," and his scripta as "erronea, nefanda, impia, sacrilega, et plusquam haeretica."



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