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August 3: Étienne Dolet

Étienne Dolet (1509)

Étienne Dolet

It was on this date, August 3, 1546, that the French scholar and printer of books critical of religion, Étienne Dolet, was burned alive for his opinions. Dolet was born in Orléans in 1509, possibly also on 3 August, and possibly into a family of wealth and rank.

Dolet studied in Paris and Padua, served with the ambassador to Venice, and wrote Latin love poems. He returned to France to study law at Toulouse, but was thrown into jail during a political dispute in which he happened to be on the wrong side. Released, and under the protection and permission of Francis I, Dolet was licensed to publish his own writings and the writings of others: ancient and modern, sacred and secular, from the New Testament in Latin to Rabelais in French. Then, in 1542, before his license expired, he was again imprisoned—this time for atheism. However, Dolet’s writings were more Protestant than atheist, but he doubted the doctrine of the Trinity, which is understandable once you understand it. As described by Ingersoll 350 years later,

Christ, according to the faith, is the second person in the Trinity, the Father being the first and the Holy Ghost the third. Each of these three persons is God. Christ is his own father and his own son. The Holy Ghost is neither father nor son, but both. The son was begotten by the father, but existed before he was begotten—just the same before as after. Christ is just as old as his father, and the father is just as young as his son. The Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and Son, but was equal to the Father and Son before he proceeded, that is to say, before he existed, but he is of the same age of the other two. So, it is declared that the Father is God, and the Son God and the Holy Ghost God, and that these three Gods make one God. According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three times one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. The addition is equally peculiar, if we add two to one we have but one. Each one is equal to himself and the other two. Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity. (“Foundations of Faith,” 1895)

Indeed, Dolet’s views were not recognized by the Protestants of his time. John Calvin formally condemned him and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and his master Simon de Villanova, believed he had uttered execrable blasphemies against the Son of God. In a time when priests reserved the reading of the Bible to those who understood the ancient languages in which it was written, Dolet believed it was permissible to read the Bible in the language of the common people. (There is some merit to the view opposed to Dolet’s in this instance: you miss a lot of the linguistic history and context of the Bible if you do not understand the original tongues.)

After 15 months in prison, the bishop of Tulle, Pierre Duchatel, got Dolet released. He was imprisoned yet again in 1544, but this time managed to escape. In traveling to Piedmont, where he believed he could print in letters his appeal for justice to the king of France and the parlement of Paris, the queen of Navarre had Dolet arrested. He was branded a relapsed atheist by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. Dolet was tortured, strangled and then burned in the Place Maubert—with his books—a martyr to free thought and free speech. He was only 37 years old. A statue of Étienne Dolet was erected on the Place Maubert in 1889; a bust stands in his home city of Orléans.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

2 comments on “August 3: Étienne Dolet”

  1. Another enlightening article from a man of books. I especially like the 'celestial math'. It brought back memories of, shall I say, somewhat argumentative exchanges between myself and the nun's tasked with teaching me both religion and basic math. Luckily 20th century nuns were limited in their sadistic expression or I might not be here to comment at all.

    I'd expound further; however, I broke my hand a few days ago and typing is difficult. 🙁

    1. Sorry about the hand. Thanks for the kind words. I'm happy to hear that you survived your religious education!

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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