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§ 149. Servetus flees to Geneva and is arrested.


Rilliet: Relation du procès, etc., quoted above, p. 684. (Tweedie’s translation in his Calvin and Servetus, pp. 62 sqq.) Opera, VIII. 725–856.


Escaped from one danger of death, Servetus, as by "a fatal madness," as Calvin says, rushed into another.11611161    "Nescio quid dicam, nisi fatali vesania fuisse correptum ut se praecipitem jaceret." Calvin. See Henry, III. 151. Did he aspire to the glory of martyrdom in Geneva, as he seemed to intimate in his letter to Poupin? But he had just escaped martyrdom in France. Or did he wish to have a personal interview with Calvin, which he had sought in Paris in 1534, and again in Vienne in 1546? But after publishing his abusive letters and suspecting him for denunciation, he could hardly entertain such a wish. Or did he merely intend to pass through the place on his way to Italy? But in this case he need not tarry there for weeks, and he might have taken another route through Savoy, or by the sea. Or did he hope to dethrone, the pope of Geneva with the aid of his enemies, who had just then the political control of the Republic?11621162    Willis (p. 284) thinks that the enemies of Calvin detained him with the view to make political capital out of him. He infers this from the fact that the windows of his room were nailed up. As if he could not have passed out through the door! Moreover, it was not the windows of his room in the tavern, as Willis says, but the windows of the prison that were nailed up, as Servetus stated at the trial, to prove that he had no intercourse with outsiders. See Rilliet-Tweedie, p. 154.

He lingered in France for about three months. He intended, first, as he declared at the trial, to proceed to Spain, but finding the journey unsafe, he turned his eye to Naples, where he hoped to make a living as physician among the numerous Spanish residents. This he could easily have done under a new name.

He took his way through Geneva. He arrived there after the middle of July, 1553, alone and on foot, having left his horse on the French border. He took up his lodging in the Auberge de la Rose, a small inn on the banks of the lake. His dress and manner, his gold chain and gold rings, excited attention. On being asked by his host whether he was married, he answered, like a light-hearted cavalier, that women enough could be found without marrying.11631163    "On trouve bien assez de femmes sans se marrier." Comp. Trechsel, I. 306. This frivolous reply provoked suspicion of immorality, and was made use of at the trial, but unjustly, for a fracture disabled him for marriage and prevented libertinage.11641164    He declared, Aug. 23, that he was impotent on account of a rupture. Opera, VIII. 769.

He remained about a month, and then intended to leave for Zürich. He asked his host to hire a boat to convey him over the lake some distance eastward.

But before his departure he attended church, on Sunday, the 13th of August. He was recognized and arrested by an officer of the police in the name of the Council.11651165    The following is an extract from the Registers of the Company of Pastore sub. Aug. 13 (in Opera, VIII. 725): "M. Servetus having been recognized by some brethren (par quelques frères), it was found good to cause him to be imprisoned, that he might no longer infect the world with his blasphemies and heresies; for he is known to be wholly incorrigible and desperate (du tout incorrigible et desesperé)."

Calvin was responsible for this arrest, as he frankly and repeatedly acknowledged.11661166    In the Refutatio, Opera, VIII. 461, 725, and in letters to Farel (Aug. 20) and Sulzer (Sept. 8, 1553). "Servetus," he wrote to Sulzer in Basel, during the trial, "escaped from prison some way or other, and wandered in Italy for nearly four months. At length, in an evil hour, he came to this place, when, at my instigation, one of the Syndics ordered him to be conducted to prison; for I do not disguise it that I considered it my duty to put a check, so far as I could, upon this most obstinate and ungovernable man, that his contagion might not spread farther. We see with what wantonness impiety is making progress everywhere, so that new errors are ever and anon breaking forth; we see how very inactive those are whom God has armed with the sword for the vindication of the glory of his name." The reference to a four months’ wandering in Italy (per Italiam erravit fere quatuor menses, that is, from April 7th to the end of July) is an error. Servetus at the trial denied that he had been in Italy at that time or at Venice at my time. It was a fatal mistake. Servetus was a stranger and had committed no offence in Geneva. Calvin ought to have allowed him quietly to proceed on his intended journey. Why then did he act otherwise? Certainly not from personal malice, nor other selfish reasons; for he only increased the difficulty of his critical situation, and ran the risk of his defeat by the Libertine party then in power. It was an error of judgment. He was under the false impression that Servetus had just come from Venice, the headquarters of Italian humanists and sceptics, to propagate his errors in Geneva, and he considered it his duty to make so dangerous a man harmless, by bringing him either to conviction and recantation, or to deserved punishment. He was determined to stand or fall with the principle of purity of doctrine and discipline. Rilliet justifies the arrest as a necessary measure of self-defence. "Under pain of abdication," he says, "Calvin must do everything rather than suffer by his side in Geneva a man whom he considered the greatest enemy of the Reformation; and the critical position in which he saw it in the bosom of the Republic, was one motive more to remove, if it was possible, the new element of dissolution which the free sojourn of Servetus would have created … . To tolerate Servetus with impunity at Geneva would have been for Calvin to exile himself … He had no alternative. The man whom a Calvinist accusation had caused to be arrested, tried, and condemned to the flames in France, could not find an asylum in the city from which that accusation had issued."11671167    Translated by Tweedie, p. 87.



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