February 29, 2004


After having put it aside for a while, I picked up Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, about Michael Servetus, who was burned in Calvin's Geneva for heresy. Like most popular works of history, it is riddled with the usual errors -- the book claims that Greek replaced Latin as the scholarly language of Western Europe in the 16th century; that Erasmus never questioned Catholic orthodoxy (see here for some fairly serious questioning); that France banned translations of the Bible into Hebrew and Greek (unless they were banning translations of the New Testament into Hebrew and the Old Testament into Greek) -- the list goes on. There are also the usual attempts to evaluate historical figures according to modern values -- sometimes absurdly so. Marguerite de Navarre is reduced to "a twentieth-century feminist trapped in the prejudice and sexual politics of the sixteenth." Apparently, she burnt her bodice, but the Church hierarchy assumed it was because the bodice was heretical, thus missing the whole point of the exercise.

Things get even more laughable when he get to Calvin, who apparently decided to become arguably the most important figure of the Reformation (although Luther has a strong claim on the title) out of a fit of pique after the sales of a commentary he wrote on Seneca were less than he had expected.

As for Servetus, so far he's hardly mentioned at all (and I'm about half way through it). One oddity: the authors assume that Servetus' heresy represented a threat to Calvin, that Servetus, who had no followers, would threaten Calvin, who had tens of thousands. And this, of course, is because Servetus' heresy involved a much more modern apprehension of Christianity than dusty old Calvin. No doubt bodice-burners all over Europe were eager to throw off the trinity and join Servetus' movement.

For my part, I can't help recalling the lines of Voltaire on the subject:

Calvin and his henchmen, wathced for by the law,

In Paris went to effigy.

Servetus was immolated in person by Calvin.

If Servetus had been sovereign in Geneva

He would, as an argument against his adversaries,

Have had the necks of the Trinitarians squeezed in nooses.

Addendum: I corrected the spelling of "Margeurite" above, and would like to point out that the Voltaire lines quoted above come from Bernard Cottret's work Calvin: A Life. No, I don't know my Voltaire that well. I do find it interesting that, with some frequency, Islamists and those who practice Occidentalism cite Voltaire's criticisms of Islam as being fairly typical of European hostility to the faith. Voltaire was critical of religion, period, and Islam enjoyed no particular pride of place among his targets.

Posted by Ideofact at February 29, 2004 11:37 PM