Michael Serveto or Servetus was born in Spain in 1511 and on his mother’s side, belonged to a distinguished family of converted Jews. After a brilliant career as an author and physician, he was burned at the stake for heresy in Geneva in 1553, an act for which Serveto held John Calvin primarily responsible.
One of the main charges of heresy leveled against Serveto was that he questioned the infallibility of
the description in the Bible of the Holy Land as a place of milk and honey, by saying that visitors actually
found it an arid and dreary place. This offending description was attached to a map of the Holy Land in
an edition of Ptolemy’s Geography of 1535 which Serveto had edited (using the nom de plume of
Michael Villanovanus). For a second edition of this work in 1541, Serveto was astute enough to
eliminate the offending description, but it did him no good. The charge had been made and it stuck.
Perhaps the offensive description alone would not have constituted grounds for Serveto’s execution,
but, in combination with his anti-trinitarian views in his De Trinitatis Erroribus and Christianismi
Reconstitutio, works in which he had challenged the theological and institutional foundations of
Christianity, Serveto brought down on his head the wrath of both Protestants and Catholics.
In this paper I review the history of the editions of Ptolemy’s Geography (Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini
Geographicae Enarrationis libri octo) which Servetus edited, in order to show that indeed he was not the
author of the offending description; rather, evidence points to Willibald Pirckheimer as the most likely
candidate as the author of the passage that tragically contributed to Serveto’s death.
The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research