"Out of the Flames", reviewd by J. de Marcos

16/04/2004

Por Jaume de Marcos

Some time ago I expressed some criticism about the book on Michael Servetus by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, "Out of the Flames", mainly based on reports I had received from Servetian scholars, and I was asked by some list members to provide more details about this. I had bought the book from Amazon and received it shortly afterwards. Now I am able to give a more detailed account of this book's shortcomings. I will give only a few striking examples that I have found.

Actually the book is very reader-friendly and it is written almost like a mystery novel. Perhaps this is my main concern about the book: it is so concerned about keeping interest in the story, that it tends to dismiss scholarly care. For example, there are no footnotes throughout the book. Thus it is very difficult to verify some affirmations that are made without any details about sources. This is understandable for a popular book that aims at readability but its lack of intellectual rigor may be annoying.

For example, I was rather astonished at the revelation of Transylvanian king John Sigismund's alleged homosexuality (p. 231). There is no footnote, no bibliographical reference for this data. Being a rather famous historical character in Unitarian records (the "only Unitarian king in history", as Wilbur describes him), he appears in many books but it is the first time that I have read about this aspect of his personality. I would have liked to learn more about this, but I have no help from the writers to check and investigate.

Although many biographical data about Servetus are correct (including that he was born in Villanueva of Aragon and not in Tudela of Navarre, as Wilbur, G. H. Williams and others wrongly thought), there are also a few mistakes. For example, Servetus did not escape from Vienne "on the eve of his execution" (p. 2), but more than two months before it actually took place "in effigy" (using a wooden carving). On the day he ran away, there was not even a death sentence yet, being the inquisitorial process still in the interrogation phase! I guess that impending execution sounded more dramatic for narrating the story, but historically it is quite incorrect.

Some data seem more based on prejudice than on actual fact. The authors describe Servetus's appearance as "almost Moorish". However there is no hint of "Moorishness" in Servetus. He was born in north-eastern Spain, in the old Christian kingdom of Aragon, from a family whose ancestors came from even further north, a hamlet on the slopes of the Pyrenees. There were no Moors (i.e. Northern African Muslims) in that area, and they had not been there at least for the last four hundred years. Moreover the Servetus family were proud of being "infanzones" (lesser rural nobility), who could only be of "pure blood" (no mixed marriages with Jews or Muslims for as many generations as they could be traced back). Therefore their lineage could only be traced back to the Romans, the Visigoths, or maybe the Basques, but never to the Moors who were still inhabiting many areas in the south of the country.

Unitarianism in Transylvania is not well documented either. Almost all relevance is given to Biandrata's influence (although I agree that he deserves much more recognition than it has been given to him in Unitarian studies up to now), and Ferenc Dávid is only mentioned in passing. Also, the authors only refer to "the Unitarian church in Cluj", ignoring the many Unitarian congregations in rural villages and small towns in Transylvania.

I have also noticed that other historical data, not related to Unitarianism, are either wrong or inaccurate. For example, Phillip I of Spain did not lock up his wife Juana in a tower because of her madness (p. 8). He suddenly died in his young age and Juana was so overwhelmed by grief that she refused to bury him, and the aristocrats of Castille were those who finally decided to lock her up for life. Modern historians have seen a political move to pass the crown to her son, the future Emperor Charles V, rather than real concern for her mental sanity.

Even geographical data are wrong. For example, Chapter 2 begins with: "Huesca, where Miguel Serveto grew up... was heavily influenced both by France to the north and the independent kingdom of Navarre less than twenty miles to the west". Servetus was born in the province of Huesca, but this is a modern division from the 19th century, not from the 16th century when Servetus was born. If the authors mean that Servetus grew up in the city of Huesca, they are wrong. And anyway, Navarre is not "20 miles away" from Huesca by any means, neither from the city nor from the province (they are neighbouring provinces). Villanueva is also many miles away from the limits of Navarre.

Finally, being a Spaniard myself, what upsets me most about the authors' research is that there is total silence about the Servetus legacy in his home country. In the Epilogue there is no mention about the monuments and pictures of Servetus in Spain (including one drawing by Picasso), no mention that his family house is a museum and exhibition center (only a comment that it "still stands"), not a single reference in the bibliographical notes to Spanish authors and scholars, or to Spanish translations of his books (nowadays it is easier to find Christianismi Restitutio in Spanish than in the original Latin, and the English version has not yet been published).

I cannot give opinions on the descriptions about the whereabouts of the three only copies of his famous last book, which covers the last third of the book and it is of more interest to me, but taking into account that the facts that I do know include so many inaccuracies and mistakes, I have some misgivings about them.