Miguel Servet en España (1506-1527). Edición ampliada, en Paedagogica Historica. International Journal of the History of Education.

El diario academico Paedagogica Historica. International Journal of the History of Education, uno de los mas importantes en el campo de la Historia de la Educacion, ha publicado en su Voluen 57, Issue 4, una reseña sobre el libro Miguel Servet en España (1506-1527). Edición ampliada, escrita por el profesor Enrique Gonzalez Gonzalez del Instituto de Investigaciones sobre la Universidad y la Educación, de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, uno de los mayores expertos en la Historia de las Universidades de habla hispana (tanto de America como de España).

Reproducimos la referencia y texto completo:


Enrique González González, Miguel Servet en España (1506-1527), by Miguel González Ancín and Otis Towns, Edición ampliada, Tudela (s. i.), Castila, 2017, 469 pp., 27 € (paperback), ISBN: 978-84-697-8054-1, Paedagogica Historica. International Journal of the History of Education, Vol. 57, Issue 4, pp. 461-464 | (Published online: 25 Nov 2020).

“Regarding Michael Servetus alias Revés, Villanovanus, or de Villeneufve, it is known with certainty that he was burnt at the stake, under a sentence from the Calvinist Geneva Council, on 27 October 1553. All the rest, almost everything regarding his itinerant life, generates debates and conjectures: his true name; place and date of birth; his parents, and if they belonged to the low nobility or were conversos; his education; his constant comings and goings after he left Spain around 1528, etc. The fact that a large number of key data come from judicial trials in which the accused narrates and recreates his life as part of a defensive strategy makes it difficult for historians to choose one of his various, sometimes inconsistent, assertions. And if there is confusion on the steps he took in life after 1528, when it comes to Servetus’s early years (of which he hid as much as he could) they remained wrapped in almost complete darkness, only showing up in documents from 1531 and later.

Angel Alcalá, whose interest in Servetus’s biography and works is well known, should suffice as an example. In 1973 he had already translated R.H. Bainton’s biography, Servet. El hereje perseguido. Among other works concerning the heterodox, he also published several tomes of his Obras Completas. In the first volume, after a bibliographical summary (OC, I, pp. XIII–CLVII), he gathered 89 known documents (pp. 1–359). Nevertheless, only two of them came from Spain: a title of low nobility granted to a Juan de Serveto in 1327 (pp. 5–6), and an edict by the Supreme Inquisition against Servetus in 1532 (pp. 33–35). That is to say, from the vast compilation none of them coincided with his Spanish years. Hence, Alcalá picks up what used to be considered as Servetus’s biography again: born near 1511 in Villanueva de Sigena (also “Sigena”), son of notary Antón Serveto alias Revés, from the low nobility, and Catalina Conesa. He adds that around 1525 Servetus started in service with Juan de Quintana, confessor of Charles V, and that Servetus accompanied him in the royal court, through Spain and Italy until they attended Charles V’s coronation in Bologna in 1530.

In contrast, González Ancín and Towns’s book publishes 158 pages of documents dated from 1498 to 1553, although most of them belong to the first third of the XVI century (pp. 269–427). These documents concern Servetus, his social environment and education, turning this research into one of interest for several fields, including the history of education and the history of the University of Zaragoza, on which some other works already exist (Beltrán Martínez, 1983; Peiró Martín and Vicente Guerrero, 2010; Rújula López and Lomba Serrano, 2016). These manuscripts were found or produced at Barcelona, Zaragoza, Huesca, Barbastro, Tarazona, Pamplona, Tudela, Cascante, Sigena, Madrid and Salamanca. A transcription is provided, with a facsimile of those considered most important (pp. 431–469). This surprising sum of evidence forces us to substantially reconsider that which was thought to be known of this physician and theologian’s peninsular years. The rescued archival pieces come with a dense study in nine chapters (pp. 21–353), not always easy to follow nor always completely convincing, but which demolishes, so to say, that which was taken for granted on Servetus’s years in Spain. And there lies the interest of both the study and the sources. The book evinces for the umpteenth time that the “lack” of documents often hides a lack of will or interest to find them.

This work’s greatest virtue is undoubtedly that it superseded the local discourse. The check
of the listed places’ archives allowed the discovery and documentation of a vast and extremely complex fabric of economic and social interests, which included notaries, physicians, mer­chants, clerics, lessors, cart carriers and tax collectors with interests in Aragon, Navarre, Castile and France. These manuscripts enabled the authors to rebuild genealogies, family ties, properties, conflicts. Some of these actors belonged to the citizen class, or infanzones (low nobility), and – perhaps without great scruple, or full awareness – marriage settlements often happened between old Christians and conversos. In this environment (without documents or arguments clarifying the nexuses in all the cases as much as some readers would wish) Michael Servetus emerges, Master in Arts of the University of Zaragoza, who combines teaching and mercantile deals with his people, aspects that were completely unknown until now.


Where and when was Servetus born? This is one of the most puzzling questions in the book. When it comes to Servetus’s birth date, the fluctuating references or allusions to his age in the trials point to any year between 1509 and 1511, not before. Nevertheless, around April 1532 Dr. Juan de Quintana, Charles V’s confessor – and for some time Servetus’s master –remarked that the physician was Aragonese and was 26 years old (OC, I, p. 29), which would push his birth back in time to 1506. In addition, Servetus also used two different last names: “Villanueva” and “Serveto alias Revés”, and for each he provided a different birthplace: the city of Tudela (Kingdom of Navarre) and the village of Sigena (Kingdom of Aragon) respectively. In the case of Sigena, he specified that his father was a notary (OC, I, pp. 78, 134–135).


The book dedicates its first two chapters to trying to shed some light on this issue, researching these two hypothetical birthplaces. In chapter I, the authors researched the families named “Villanueva” in Tudela. One of the most intriguing documents published and discussed in the book is precisely a notarial affidavit dated in 1506 in Cascante (10 km from Tudela). The physician Nicolás de Villanueva called several witnesses to verify that his son, born on the previous night, had a natural lesion on his penis, which could be mistaken for a circumcision (pp. 287–288). It is well known that in Geneva Servetus justified his single state by citing impotence derived from a hernia and a cut on his penis, dating from time immemorial. Nicolás had arrived in Tudela (Navarre) in 1492, as a Jew, in order to elude the Edict of Expulsion from Castile and Aragon by the Catholic monarchs. In 1498, Navarre adopted the same policy, and the physician was baptised and took the mentioned name. In 1512, right after Castile had conquered Navarre, an Inquisitorial court started operating in this kingdom, with its headquarters at Tudela. In 1515 it dictated an arrest warrant for the physician, who managed to flee to France. His properties were seized and later repurchased from the Inquisition treasury by a friend of his wife, and no trace of her was left after 1518 (pp. 29–54; 269–286).


In chapter II, the authors researched the Aragonese village of Sigena. It was already known that there lived a wealthy family of infanzones whose members are with no exception named “Servet alias Revés”. The most famous one was the notary Antón, married to Catalina Conesa. Michael’s paternity is often attributed to them, but as both of their last wills are missing there is no total certainty. Other notarial documents allowed González and Towns to identify four sons and three daughters of the couple, and their respective spouses, but not Michael. He only appears as a family member in a notarised act from 1525. Physician Ramón, Anton’s brother, had a daughter called Agustina. When her father died, Agustina Serveto alias Revés gave Miguel Servetus power to arrange her marriage settlements; Agustina calls Michael a “cousin”.

With these first two chapters the authors present the theory that Michael Servetus was that child born in 1506 in Cascante, and that due to the biological father’s disappearance the child would have been adopted by the Servetos from Sigena. In the absence of decisive evidence, they rebuilt the already mentioned fabric of family and mercantile bonds which linked the Servetos to relatives and/or merchants from diverse cities and places from Aragon and the other side of the Navarrese border, including Tudela and Cascante. The question remains open, and only new documents shall properly cast light on it.

The other notable matter which the book brought to light (chapters III to VII), and of which nothing was suspected, is that of the future physician’s education and mentors. In chapter III the authors documented how Michael Servetus very probably studied grammar in the local school of Sariñena (near Sigena), where the Servetos had relatives and partners. This school’s teacher, Domingo Manobel, claimed to be a bachelor in Cannon Law of the University of Salamanca. Proof that Servetus knew him is that in 1527 he served as Manobel’s representative for certain collections (pp. 282–283).

In chapter IV, following their interest in Servetus’s education, the authors researched the origins of Servetus’s mentor, don Juan Quintana. They found that he happened to be from the village of Sariñena. Chapter V is dedicated to the past of a previously unknown teacher of Servetus: maestre Gaspar Lax (1487–1560), who was also from that same village, and had ties to the Servetos. At the century’s dawn, master Lax stood out in Paris as “Prince of sophists”, where one of his disciples was Luis Vives. In response to kind offers, Lax moved in 1516 to teach at the University of Huesca, from where he moved to Zaragoza. It seems he had a highly vehement personality. In 1520 he became the High Master of Arts in Zaragoza’s Studium Generale of Arts (Estudio General de Artes liberales, the institution which was the predecessor of the University of Zaragoza), where Servetus would receive his higher education in liberal arts.


Chapter VI is dedicated to the study of several aspects (mechanbuilding) of this Studium Generale of Arts, and chapter VII follows the life of Servetus in this educational centre. In these two chapters pertaining to the general description of the Estudio General de Artes de Zaragoza (chap. VI) and its specific history from 1520 to 1527 (chap. VII) the book presents and examines more than a hundred new documents on the history of this educational institution. Servetus appears in 13 of these new documents, allowing the authors to describe his academic itinerary, which was heretofore utterly unknown. Servetus started attending the Studium in 1520, and thanks to the studies of some of his fellow students during those same years (specifically student Pedro Carnicer), we know that Servetus was most likely trained in Latin grammar and Aristotelian logic and philosophy. The Studium was ruled by the Archbishop of Zaragoza, and under him a Rector who was elected every course, a High Master and the four Masters of Arts. Servetus obtained his bachelor’s degree on 17 May 1523, and his master’s degree on 4 June 1524 (pp. 269–270; 431–433). This means that, if he was born in 1506, he obtained his first degree when he was 16 and the other when he was 17. But if this date is 1511, he would have had his master’s tassel when he was 13, too early. During the four years in which Servetus studied in the Studium, the four Masters of Arts were masters Martín de Miranda, Miguel Ansías, Jaime Exerich and Gaspar Lax. Masters Miranda and Ansías soon died, and were replaced by masters Juan Lorenzo Carnicer and Juan de Villalpando, both of whom had been studying medicine abroad. In 1525, a notarial affidavit reveals Servetus as already a teacher in the institution, as one of the Studium’s four Masters of Arts. In addition, another notarial affidavit from 1527 shows Servetus assisting in a bachelor’s degree test (p. 282). Masters Villalpando and Carnicer didn’t remain much longer on the Studium’s board, but Servetus did, at least until 1527. The authors also documented how Servetus had such a serious clash with Lax that on 28 March 1527 both signed “peace and truce” before a notary (pp. 284–285). Had the heterodox already surfaced? It is anyhow Servetus’s last known testimony in Spain, and, according to the authors, the reason behind his departure for France.

Chapter VIII remarks how, in the absence of data, biographers overestimated Quintana –Charles V’s confessor – as the key figure in Servetus’s intellectual formation. Michael declared that he left his homeland when he started being in Quintana’s service “a little before Charles V would leave Spain to be coronated” (OC, I, p. 78). It is certain that the Emperor was in Zaragoza twice: first in June 1528, after the celebration of the Courts of Monzón, also travelling through Castile for nine months. He came back to the city in March 1529, already on his way to Barcelona, which he reached in April. In June he embarked for Genoa. Servetus’s “little before” fits better with the second stay. Either way, Servetus’s bond with the court and the confessor would have been brief. With Charles already crowned in Bologna (February 1530), the retinue proceeded to Germany and reached Innsbruck in May. Servetus separated from it very soon, for in 1532, when the scandal of his work De Trinitatis erroribus (1531) erupted, Quintana said that Servetus had been visiting reformed cities and reformers such as Oecolampadius for more than a year. He referred to Servetus as “uomo di grandissimo ingegno, et era gran sophista” (OC, I, pp. 29–30): an involuntary compliment to master Gaspar Lax, who had educated Servetus in Zaragoza as a keen dialectical logician, as a “great sophist”. That intellectual inheritance Spain would have granted him.


Books like this raise new questions and open windows for looking at what seemed hope­lessly dark. In the light of this new documentation, we can reconstruct a period of Servetus’s life, marked by both his relevant education and the influence of his teachers. As with every person, both of them would accompany this genius through all his life.

Enrique González González
UNAM

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