16th century polymath

Next Thursday, 29 September 2011, is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus in Villanueva de Sigena, Aragon. His father Antonio Serveto was a notary, and his mother was descended from Jewish converts to Christianity.

Servetus was gifted linguistically, and at 15 entered into the service of a Franciscan friar, where he read the entire bible in its original languages. These studies led him to develop arguments against the doctrine of the holy trinity, which he claimed was not based on original texts but had arisen through teachings of the Greek philosophers. He believed that dismissing trinitarian dogma would make Christianity more accessible to Jews and Muslims. He was also well studied in many fields other than theology and he considered theology, medicine and the rest of the sciences to be interlinked.

He studied medicine at university in Paris, and was interested in pharmacology and humanism, but also studied astronomy and meteorology. In 1535 he edited a new edition of Ptolemy’s ‘Geography’.

Servetus’s book ‘The restoration of Christianity’, written in 1553, contains the first written description in Europe of the pulmonary circulation. Biblical and Hebrew theories postulated that the soul was contained in the blood and he concluded that the best way to understand its journey was to study the circulation.

This work brought him into conflict with the church, not only because it contradicted long-standing theological accounts of the circulatory system, but because he also wanted to perform autopsies, which were considered defilement.

His views increasingly riled the church. He was subjected to the French inquisition and sentenced to death after being found guilty of heresy. He escaped from prison but was later retried. On 27 October 1553 he was burned at the stake at Geneva, along with his books, for the crimes of preaching non-trinitarianism and antipaedobaptism.

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