THE DENUNCIATION AND TRIAL OF SERVETUS AT VIENNE
WITH HIS MAGNUM OPUS, the fruit of a quarter of a century of prayerful reflection upon the reformation of a long corrupted Christian religion, at last off the press and secretly stored until the Easter fair should begin to spread it through the world, Servetus doubtless felt no small measure of happiness as he went on his rounds among his patients at Vienne. He cannot have dreamed what trouble was brewing for him over the border at Geneva. He knew indeed that Calvin was in the secret of the assumed name that he bore in France, and knew that as soon as Calvin should see his new book he would recognize its authorship. He had also long had a presentiment that if he once came within Calvin’s reach his life would not be safe.1 But he was safe on French soil, where he had done nothing openly to compromise himself, he had a circle of very distinguished friends, and he was to all appearance an irreproachable Catholic. It can hardly have entered into his calculations that he might be betrayed into Catholic hands by Protestants themselves. Yet so it was to happen.
At just this time there was living at Geneva a young merchant named Guillaume de Trie.2 He was of a distinguished family of the French nobility, and had been sheriff at Lyon, but having accepted the Protestant faith he had fled to Geneva in 1549, where in 1555 he became a citizen, and eventually a member of the Council of 200. He was one of the most distinguished of the many Protestant refugees at Geneva. He was son-in-law of Guillaume de Bud the noted French humanist and founder of the College de France. At Geneva he was one of Calvin’s close friends, and his near neighbor, and when he died in 1561 he made Calvin guardian of his children, who found in him a second father.3 He was a fanatical Protestant, and his relatives at Lyon much lamented his departure from the Catholic faith. His cousin, Antoine Arneys, therefore wrote him a letter of friendly remonstrance which, as may be inferred from his reply, criticized the lack of church discipline and order at Geneva, and the general abuse of liberty among Protestants. Dc Trie replied that moral standards were better maintained at Geneva than at Lyon; and that as for doctrine, blasphemies and heresies were repressed at Geneva which existed at Lyon without restraint. To support this grave charge he cited the case of a heretic who in blasphemous terms denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and was allowed even to print books to spread his heresies, and yet was unpunished, while orthodox Protestants were being put to cruel death at the stake for maintaining the simple doctrines of the Gospel. He added that this man was properly named Michael Servetus, though he now passed under the name of Villeneuve, a practicing physician at Vienne, and that his book had been printed by Arnoullet. As proof he inclosed the first sheet of sixteen pages of the printed book. Having shot this bolt, de Trie excused himself from taking up Arneys’s charges in detail.4
At this period the diocese of Lyon was especially exposed to infection from the Protestant influences ruling at Geneva; and to check this, Cardinal Francois de Tournon, Archbishop of Lyon, had as early as 1535 had a trained Inquisitor sent from Rome in the person of a Dominican friar named Matthieu Ory, who set up in Paris the chambre ardente for the trial of heretics,5 and for over twenty years was famous as the vigilant Inquisitor-General for all France.6 Arneys therefore at once communicated the letter to the Inquisitor who, together with the Archbishop’s Vicar-General, examined it and the printed pages. They in turn laid the matter before the Cardinal in his palace at Roussillon, and it was decided to commence proceedings against Servetus. The next day they went to Vienne, and put Servetus under examination. He met them with engaging frankness, and when they searched his lodgings for incriminating evidence they could find none. They also questioned the printers, their employees, families and servants, and searched their houses, papers and printing office, again without success.7
Since it was agreed that there was as yet no evidence on which Servetus could fairly be held, it was decided that Arneys be asked to write de Trie for the entire book, of which only one sheet had been sent. Arneys therefore wrote to this effect a letter dictated by the Inquisitor. De Trie responded with alacrity, doing even better than had been asked. He could not indeed at once furnish the desired book, which was not then in his hands, and which in any case Servetus could disown; but he sent instead two dozen more or less heretical pieces in handwriting which Servetus could not disown. These he had obtained from Calvin, though only, he said, with great difficulty, since Calvin was at first unwilling to play into the hands of a Catholic pros for heresy. However, he finally yielded to de Trie’s importunity in order to spare him the embarrassment of being charged with trifling in making charges that he was unable to substantiate. The writings he sent would be more than enough to furnish a basis for prosecution, though he hoped a little later to furnish the rest of the printed book.
Five days later de Trie sent another letter, calling attention to the fact that in one of the letters already sent Servetus had acknowledged his true name; and renewing his promise to send if necessary the other printed writings, manuscripts and letters, which for two years past had been at Lausanne in the hands of others to whom they were addressed. He added some other data that might aid in the prosecution.8
Sufficient evidence being now in hand to ensure successful prosecution, the arrest, trial, conviction and sentence of Servetus followed in due course. As to the part that de Trie played in the development of this drama, there has been no difference of judgment. That one should, in the performance of official duty, have to serve as executioner, prosecutor or Inquisitor is itself bad enough. But that one should voluntarily assume the role of informer, betraying a fellow-man in another country, in a matter in which he had no personal concern, and helping to corn pass his death simply to gain a point in debate with an adherent of a rival religion, is too contemptible for words. By the unanimous verdict of Catholics and Protestants alike, de Trie stands pilloried as guilty of the wanton and shameless act of a fanatical bigot, who covered up his odious conduct by pious phrases and a professed concern for religion.
As to Calvin’s share in the transaction, opinions have been more divided, being naturally somewhat colored by prepossessions. Upon the surface of the record he would seem to have done no more than to give de Trie the first pages of Servetus’s book, and later reluctantly yielding to de Trie’s importunity, to furnish him with writings or letters in Servetus’s own hand. But from the first there were those that discerned behind the hands of Esau the voice of Jacob, believing or suspecting that the letters signed by de Trie had been dictated, or at least suggested, by Calvin. This view was apparently held by the judges that condemned Servetus at Vienne, who in their sentence recited as ground of their action the letters and other writings addressed by him to Calvin.9 When the records of the trial were first published two centuries later, the editor did not hesitate to entitle them as from him, saying outright (though this was of course only his own opinion)10 that Calvin dictated the letters. This view Servetus himself plainly adopted, and he made the most of it in his trial at Geneva, pressing the point four successive times with increasing definiteness;11 but as it was Servetus that was on trial, and not Calvin, the latter was not bound to reply, and discreetly held his peace.
Not long after the death of Servetus an anonymous tract was circu lated in manuscript giving an account of the last months of his life.12 This quoted the pertinent part of de Trie’s letter and added, ‘Those that have seen this letter suspect that it was written by Calvin, on account of a similarity in style, and they do not believe that (de Trie) had a good enough use of the language to be able to write so clearly; though he said that he wrote it himself. Moreover, care was taken to send it so that it should fall into the hands of the Magistrate, and so of Cardinal Tournon himself. Some say that Calvin himself wrote to the Cardinal himself.’13 Calvin was sorely pricked as this view gained increasing currency among his opponents, and when a little later he issued his apologetic work, defending the capital punishment of heretics in general and his treatment of Servetus in particular,14 he did his best to turn the point of the criticism. He felt it a heavy charge that many were laying against him, that he had done a most shameful thing in betraying Servetus to the acknowledged enemies of Christ as though he were throwing him to wild beasts, and declaring that it was through his agency that Servetus had been imprisoned at Vienne. His answer deserves close examination for the adroit way by which, instead of making a straightforward and unequivocal denial of any responsibility in the case, he evades the crucial issue by means of a rhetorical question, and in the end really denies no more than that he himself had had any direct correspondence with the authorities at Vienne.15
The blot upon his reputation was not so easily removed, but rather tended to deepen with time. In 1577 Bolsec, continuing his campaign of hostility to Calvin and all his works, renewed the charges against him, duly embellished.16 Thus the case rested, between the charges of Calvin’s enemies on the one hand and his own somewhat equivocal denial on the other, until 1749, when the Abbé d’Artigny discovered in the archives at Vienne and brought to light for the first time the actual letters of de Trie, unpublished at the time of Calvin’s denial and so compromising to him. These were on the whole convincing to Mosheim, orthodox Protestant as he was.17 Criticism was brought to its height a few years later by the trenchant pen of Voltaire.18 Since then discussion has proceeded with diminishing heat between loyal disciples of Calvin who make as good an apology as possible for his action, and his critics or enemies whose interest it is to make his action odious and his character unattractive. In the long perspective of history, however, and in the calm light of the available evidence, the judgment of scholars tends to converge upon the view that (I) while it can not be proved, and probably is not likely, that the letters were written by de Trie at Calvin’s dictation, or perhaps even at his instigation, yet he certainly had knowledge of them; that (2) from contents, arrangement and style it is highly probable that Calvin furnished de Trie at least with material, and very likely with suggestions, for them; that (3) he certainly sup plied de Trie (even if with professed reluctance) with the first printed sheet of the Restitutio, and with four pages of Calvin’s lnstitutio bearing marginal annotations in Servetus’s hand, 19 also with two dozen manuscripts of Servetus which had been sent to Calvin in confidence, 20 and was willing, if needed, to send yet more of the printed sheets, and other manuscripts as well as the epistles; 21 and that (4) he did all this knowing full well that he was putting into the hands of the Inquisitor evidence on which Servetus was likely to be put to death. This page in the life of Calvin, therefore, is one that those that admire him for his great gifts, revere him for his general character, and feel forever grateful to him for his incalculable service to the cause of Protestantism would, were it possible, most gladly see cancelled from the record. 22
De Trie’s last letter was dated March 31, and on April 4 a considerable number of high ecclesiastics met at the Cardinal’s palace at Roussillon and examined the evidence with the greatest care. 23 Proof being considered complete, it was unanimously voted to have Servetus and Arnoullet arrested forthwith. The Archbishop returned to Vienne that afternoon, and to prevent any collusion had the two simultaneously arrested the same evening and committed to separate prisons. Servetus was found in attendance at the sick bed of the royal Governor, Guy de Maugiron, and was summoned thence to attend some sick and wounded prisoners at the royal prison, where upon arrival he was told of the charges against him and was placed under arrest, with orders that he be strictly guarded, but treated with a consideration befitting his rank. He was allowed to keep his young body-servant, and to receive visits that day from his friends. The next day the Cardinal was early informed, and the Inquisitor came in hot haste to assume charge of the case.
In the afternoon Servetus was placed under examination by the Inquisitor and three assistants, 24 and being duly sworn testified as to his name, place and date of birth, the course of his life hitherto, and the books he had published. His answers were a little vague, and of course he did not mention his two early books on the Trinity. He was then shown some printed leaves of Calvin’s Institutio, on the margins of which he had written some compromising remarks about baptism, and was asked to explain the meaning of them. He reluctantly admitted having written the notes, explained them as well as he could, and declared his willingness, if they were found contrary to the faith, to submit to the judgment of the Church and to correct them. The examination was then adjourned. On resuming, the next day,25 he was shown the manuscript of some epistles he had written to Calvin; but he soon found himself cornered as to signing himself Servetus. At the second letter he broke into tears, and declaring that he was about to tell the judges the truth, he fabricated a story in which truth was mingled with an elaborate invention, and by which he strove to explain how he had come to sign himself as he did; and he ended by saying that he had never meant to spread doctrines (dogmatiser) nor to support anything contrary to the Church or the Christian religion. The examination continued through the afternoon, 26 during which he was shown more epistles, nineteen in all. As to the suspicious doctrines expressed in these, he said that he had written them not as representing his own beliefs, but as a debater’s challenges, to draw Calvin out. The judges can hardly have been favorably impressed by his answers, but as he professed willingness to reply upon any and all points, the examination was adjourned to be continued the following day. 27
Servetus by now must have realized that his situation was one of critical danger, and he evidently considered plans (perhaps with the assistance of friends that had been allowed to see him) for making his escape. After the second examination he sent his body-servant to the monastery of St. Pierre for a sum of 300 e’cus owing to him, which the Prior had lately collected for him. 28 He was barely in time, for Ory too was alert, and within an hour had given the jailer orders that Servetus should be allowed to speak to no one without his permission. The next morning (April 7) he rose at dawn, and asked the jailer for the key that he might enter the garden, as he had done the evening before. As Servetus appeared to be only in his night clothes, the jailer suspected nothing, gave him the key, and went about his work. Servetus then threw off his nightcap and robe de chambre, jumped down upon a roof and thence into the court, and was soon across the Rhone and out into the country. 29 It was more than two hours before his escape was discovered and reported to the jailer’s wife, who in her vexation behaved like one gone mad. The city gates were ordered closed, and were guarded for several nights; the houses of Vienne and suburbs were searched; the governments of other cities were notified; and Servetus’s effects were seized, but all to no purpose. 30
It was commonly believed at Vienne that his escape had been facilitated by Antoine de la Court, Vice-Bailiff of the bailiwick of Vienne, who was one of the judges at the examinations of Servetus, but had also been his intimate friend, since Servetus had cured his only daughter of a dangerous illness. This, however, was only a suspicion, and was denied by Servetus in his testimony at Geneva. 31 At the beginning of May the Inquisitor found out where Arnoullet’s secret presses had been set up, though the latter had not mentioned them. He visited them and found the three journeyman printers who, trembling for fear of death, made a clean breast of all: that the printing had taken from Michaelmas (September 29) to January 3 that Servetus had borne all the expense and corrected the proofs; and that ten days after the printing five bales of the books had been sent to Pierre Merrin at Lyon. The Inquisitor at once had these seized and brought back to Vienne, where they were all destroyed later. 32 Also a priest of Vienne, one Jacques Charmier, who had borne a message from Servetus to Merrin about the bales (though he stedfastly denied all knowledge of their character), and had been known to be a close friend of Servetus, was so strongly suspected of complicity with him that he was later sentenced to three years in prison. 33
Arnoullet languished in prison for four months, charged with complicity in the printing; but he finally persuaded the judges that he had been misled by Guéroult as to the character of the book, and having been set free returned to Geneva so as to be beyond further reach of the Inquisition. While his case was still pending, as he feared to become further incriminated, he wrote from prison to his agent Bertet 34 (then staying at Chatillon, about twenty-five miles west of Geneva), urging him to go to Frankfurt and destroy to the last leaf the books consigned to him there. 35 This was duly done, whereupon Bertet won praise from Calvin as a pious and upright man. 36 When Estienne on his part learned of the nature of the book and reported it to his friend Calvin, he will of course have destroyed whatever copies he still had at Geneva. Moreover he sent his servant Thomas to Frankfurt with instructions to burn the copies still held there for the autumn fair; bearing also a letter from Calvin to the pastors of the Frankfurt church to make sure that this was faithfully done. 37 It is not known how many copies (if any) had been sold at the Easter fair at Frankfurt, or by Estienne at Geneva; and more copies may have gone into circulation than has been generally supposed; 38 but save for the few copies retained by the authorities, the work was so thoroughly suppressed that at the present day only three copies are known to be in existence. 39
The trial of Servetus went on for ten weeks after his escape, and the rest of April was spent in examining the documents in the case.40 The Inquisitor drew up an abstract of the principal errors in the Restitutio, and the case having been duly prepared and no defence offered, sentence was pronounced on June I7. 41 After reciting the evidence offered, and the flight of the accused, the sentence pronounced Servetus guilty by default, and fined him 1,000 livres tournois. 42 It was further ordered that as soon as he was arrested he should be taken with his books on a tumbril on the next market day to the place called Charneve43 and there be burned alive by slow fire; and meanwhile the sentence was to be executed on his effigy. His goods were confiscated, and eventually given to a Bishop, son of the Governor de Maugiron. 44 On the day appointed, therefore, his effigy and the five bales of books were taken as directed, the effigy was hanged on a gallows specially erected, and all was reduced to ashes. 45 The secular arm, seeing that Servetus had defaulted in the case, had not waited for an opinion from the ecclesiastical authorities, to whom it was customary in such cases to refer the question whether the accused were guilty of heresy. But the ecclesiastical judges continued their investigation, which was prolonged until late in December. Two days befnre Christmas they were ready with their verdict: that in view of all his writings that had been submitted for their examination, it was evident that Villanovanus46 was a very great heretic; and they declared his goods confiscated, and that any of his books yet found were to be burned.47 Eight weeks before this, Servetus had already been burned at the stake at Geneva.