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Life and work of the heretic Michael de Villanueva

by F. J. Benjamin González Echeverría


Miguel de Villanueva (1511-1553), better known as Servetus, was born in the city of Tudela in Navarre, according to official French documents. In the Vienne Isère judgement , he stated that he started working for Juan de Quintana from the Crown of Aragon, who was later appointed confessor of Emperor Charles V. Michael traveled with Quintana in the imperial retinue in the Spanish procession to Charles V’s coronation in Bologna in 1530. This ostentatious ceremony planted the seed of Michael’s disdain for the Pope and papal institutions. Michael’s surname “ De Villanueva” matches with his official documents in Paris, which say that, though he war born in Navarre, his last place of residence was Zaragoza. French documents do not provide the name of the father “De Villanueva”, but it says he was not born in Navarre, but in Spain. Furthermore, “ De Villanueva” was a Jewish-Converso surname, both in Tudela and Zaragoza, the only two cities that show up in French documents.

Michael’s mother was Catalina Conesa, who is not well documented. His grandmother belonged to the Zaporta family, a very important – and also converso- family , with important merchants and bankers, such as Gabriel Zaporta. This latter was one of the bankers of Emperor Charles V.

This connection explains the great Hebraism of Michael de Villanueva, who corrects great Hebraists such as Melanchthon, and knows Hebrew sources that were not in print, such as those from Prague rabbis, or Hebrew accent marks, which were just known by great Hebraists.

He published pharmacological- both in print and manuscripts- biblical, theological, geographical, mathematical astronomical and Spanish poetical works. He also published grammatical Latin treatises for Spanish children, but overall, he defended freedom of thought and tolerance.

In 1538, as a medical student in Paris, he printed a book on astrology. Jean Tagault, the dean of Medicine, became jealous because Michael, though still a student, was already a teacher of astrology, and his lessons were attended by many important people such the archbishop Pierre Palmier. Tagault denounced Michael to the Parliament of Paris, and the Faculties and the Parliament sentenced him to die, though this sentence was finally reduced to the withdrawal of his work. Michael was also forbidden to attack any Parisian physician or face fines and prison. From that moment, the name of Michael did not appear on the cover of any new work. What is more, with the exception of his bible of 1542, (name in the prologue) his name will not appear at all. The one way to match the authorship of these anonymous works is via the contracts between Michael and the printers. Specifically, these works were printed by the Lyonnese printer Jean Frellon who referred to Michael as “ My good friend and brother, the master Miguel de Villanueva”

Some years later, in 1548-49, Miguel de Villanueva was naturalized as a French citizen. This process, initiated by Henry II, was developed via royal letters which are preserved in the Grenoble Archives (France). Michael corrected some of Galen’s doctrines and he was the first Western European to describe the lesser circulation (first in his Manuscript of Paris of 1546, and later in print in 1553). For this reason he is well known to physicians and in the History of Medicine.

One of his most important concepts was the term ‘person’, used as “image, face, figure.” This concept was defined in his works when addressing the Trinity concept as persons of a same substance, but he also used this term as a way to address certain situations of his life, such as when he said “. He was not ‘Servetus’ at all, but was happy to take the person of ‘Servetus’ for confronting Calvin and answer him as ‘ Servetus’ ”, or when he exchanged letters signed as the “. so called Servetus.” This word “Servetus/Serveto” term, is not an invented one. It is related to the surname of his stepfather.

In general, he just used this surname “ Servetus/Servet/Serveto” when he published works that were very dangerous because of the heresies they contained. So it happened in 1531 and 1532 with “ Errors of the Trinity” and “ Dialogues of the Trinity” where neither he German printer (nor the city) of this work was appeared, because of great fear. But our genius appeared as “Michael Serveto” on the covers of both works. Because of this, the Spanish Catholics with agreement of Rome tried to catch him and burn him during these first years.

The Restitution of Christianity
Christianismi Restitutio cover (French National Library)
Translations: “The Restoration of Christianity ..[…]… for destroying the Antichrist and his followers” (Latin) | ” .. And Michael appeared in Heaven..” (Hebrew) | “.. and a fight was unleashed in Heaven..” (Greek)
In 1553 this name also showed up as “ Servetus” on his last work, “ The Restitution of Christianity,” This work cost him his life. He was imprisoned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne Isère (France) but later escaped from it, and was burned in effigy in Vienne. Four months later he arrived in Geneva (Switzerland) where he again took the person of ‘Servetus’, without presenting any of his legal documents. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake in the presence of reformer John Calvin.

During his lifetime he was pursued by both Spanish and French Catholics; by the theologians of the Rhine cities, both from Basel and Strasbourg, where Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Capito lived; slandered by Lutherans such as by the important Melanchthon (*); and attacked by Calvinists, especially by its founder, John Calvin. Michael de Villanueva, was sentenced to die four times: first by the University of Paris, later by the civil government of Vienne – in effigy-, later by Calvinists in Geneva, and even after being burned, The French Catholics of Vienne issued a religious death sentence against him. This makes him the only individual burned alive by both Protestants and Catholics.

The theological condemnation from John Calvin against Servetus was because of two reasons:

I- Because he believed that God was one, and he just had ‘persons’ or “…’modes’ ‘representations’..” of the same unity in God. Michael de Villanueva did not believe in the classical Trinity as it was explained in the Nicean Council.
II- Because he believed that children should not be baptized until reaching adulthood, just as Jesus of Nazareth was baptized.

These two points were in agreement with the Catholic condemnation. But the Catholics also saw that Michael de Villanueva didn’t admit the following points:

I- The authority of the Pope (according to Michael, he was doing the contrary of Jesus of Nazareth)
II- The power of the Church and the monks
III- Some sacraments.

These three points turned him into a heretic for Catholics.
For centuries, Calvinists have justified this crime, for John Calvin attacked Michael Servetus in his book “ Institutes of Christian Religion.” The Catholic Church also defined him as “Maximums Heretic,” and so he appeared during the religious judgment of Vienne (Isère, France)

Michael de Villanueva (Servetus) defended freedom of conscience, the idea that no one should ever be killed because of thinking differently about theological issues, just as “ no one should be ever pursued” because of these reasons. He defended the separation of church and state. Many of his ideas via Unitarian doctrines, Newton and Locke, influenced Jefferson, and the American Constitution, and hence most of the constitutions in the world that protect freedom of thought. This is his greatest legacy, Tolerance.

(*) Melanchthon, Bucer, Capito and Oecolampadius are all pseudonyms, and Erasmus too. Michael Servetus shows up in Basel, surrounded by all these people.


  • Tollin, Henri. Servets Kindheit und Jugend in “Zeitschritz für die historische Theologie” (Kahnis), XLV, 1875,pp, 545-616.
  • Wilbur, Earl Morse. The two treatises of Servetus on the Trinity. On the Errors of the Trinity. Dialogues on the Trinity and the Righteousness of Christ’s Kingdom now first translated into English (Cambridge: Harvard university, ed. Faculty of Theology, 1932).
  • Barón, José. Miguel Servet. Su vida y su obra, (Madrid: Espasa –Calpe, 1970).
  • Bainton, Roland H. Michel Servet , Hérétique et Martyr, 1553-1953. (Genève: Droz,1953)
  • Cavard, Pierre. Le procès de Michel Servet à Vienne (Vienne: Syndicat d’Initiative, 1953).
  • González Echeverría, F.J. Miguel Servet, editor del Dioscórides. (Lérida: Instituto “Miguel Servet” e Ibercaja, 1997).
  • González Echeverría, F.J. Retratos o tablas de las historias del Testamento Viejo. Resumen español. Dos volúmenes : el facsímil de 1543 y la edición crítica (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2001).
  • González Echeverría, F.J. El amor a la verdad. Vida y obra de Miguel Servet.(Zaragoza: Imp.Navarro y Navarro, Gobierno de Navarra, 2011).
  • F.J. Benjamin González Echeverría –