The tale of a 16th-century genius who made the mistake of running afoul of John Calvin at the height of the Reformation in Geneva.
Adding a fourth title to their shelf of writings on the provenance of rare books, the Goldstones (Warmly Inscribed, 2001, etc.) here focus on Spaniard Michael Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio (Christianity Restored). All copies of the book, including one chained to his leg, were supposed to be destroyed when Servetus was burned at the stake, on Calvin’s orders, after his intellectual enemy failed to browbeat him into accepting an alternate view of Protestantism. Servetus’s rejection of the Trinity first gained him the label of heretic in his early 20s when his other principal foe, the Inquisition, put a price on his head. The authors use Servetus’s career to give readers a snapshot of intellectual life during the 1500s. In a Europe whose civil authorities couldn’t easily track their own citizens, whose universities were exploding with debates over church doctrine, and whose printing presses sought to publish heretical books because they sold well, punchy but pious iconoclast Servetus was a representative man like no other. Besides going toe to toe with the giants of his day, he also discovered pulmonary circulation, the process by which the lungs supply oxygen to the blood, which is then moved throughout the body via the pumping of the heart. The passage meticulously describing this process is a throwaway in Christianismi Restitutio, but the authors argue that if Calvin hadn’t been so vengeful, Servetus might have eventually advertised his discovery and moved medicine forward by almost a century. We owe its survival to Unitarianism, the religion for which his work laid the foundations. Unitarians in Transylvania somehow retained a copy of Christianismi Restitutio, keeping Servetus’s spirit alive for centuries.
Regrettably, this story of close-mindedness and redemption still resonates today.