Out of the Flames

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Read December 2003

I've always been queasy around rare book collectors: they force books to do double duty, as both material objects and abstract repositories of facts and ideas. I like a lovely book nearly as much as the next human, but in the final analysis I find that the ideas trump the goods. I especially wonder about those who don't (or can't!) read the volumes they collect. This book, a shallow but entertaining intellectual history, gives me pause, pressing me to appreciate the value of these forces of cultural preservation.

This is the story of Michael Servetus. A scholar who came of age in the time of Luther, Servetus's accomplishments could well define the Renaissance men of his age. In the course of training in medicine, under the same supervisor as Vesalius, he devised a reasonably accurate, modern theory of blood circulation, a century before Harvey. But Servetus also had strong religious views, and eventually he clashed mightily with Jean Calvin. He met his end at a stake in Geneva in 1553.

This much we learn in the first 199 pages, so what could the remaining 100+ be about? The Goldstone's are rare book collectors, and make this the story of the remaining copies of Servetus's heretical tome. All remaining copies of it were to have been burned with Servetus, yet three known copies survive. They trace these copies, which pass through many remarkable hands including Liebnitz. Servetus proceeds to be a leading light of the Unitarian movement (this being a part of his heresy), and the authors tell us a good deal about the evolution of that faith and of the many remarkable courts and people it has had to contend with.

The writing has its moments. Presenting the silent adoption by ship captains of maps that contradicted the orthodoxy of Ptolemy, they suggest (p.104) “geography became the first scientific discipline where empericism overwhelmed theology”. They describe Galen as “head of sports medicine at the local gladiatorial school” (p.111). Elsewhere (p.311), they spotlight William Osler's pedagogic talent by narrating his description of a condition difficult to hear through a stethoscope: “Imagine that you are in Paris. It is three o'clock in the morning and the streets are empty. There is a dense fog in the air that descends all the way to the cobblestoned streets. Suddenly, a coach turns the corner. The sound of wheels on the cobblestones is mitral stenosis.” When they contrast the Hollywood portrayal of an auto-da-fé with its reality, you can really feel the horror of the sentence (and wonder about those who stood around to watch it).

What I most got out of this book is the immense value of publishers. In an era of electronic publication (I say this just two days after first releasing my colophon-free programming languages text, unassisted by any traditional publishing house), it's easy to forget that people once put their lives on the line for the sake of ideas. Perhaps the stakes today are rather lower; or perhaps it's easy to imagine that in the comfort of a country with generous free speech statutes. Elsewhere in the world, perhaps we haven't progressed so much since 1553.

If you're looking for intellectual history, there are doubtless numerous superior alternatives. If you want to understand the science, and appreciate Harvey's remarkable methods, read Gregory's book instead. But for a fun, light read (if you don't mind the burnings at stake) about an interesting character and the remarkable route his books took, this is an excellent little volume.