Giordano Bruno – Gaspar Schoppe’s Account of his Condemnation

Giordano Bruno – Gaspar Schoppe’s Account of his Condemnation

In my previous post, “The Great Myths 3: Giordano Bruno was a Martyr for Science“, I noted the excellent work of Alberto A. Martinez in his recent article “Giordano Bruno and the heresy of many worlds”, (Annals of Science, Volume 73, 2016, Issue 4, pp. 345-374). Martinez makes a solid case against the general scholarly consensus that Bruno’s multiple worlds cosmology was not one of the reasons he was condemned for heresy, and goes so far as to argue it was actually the primary reason for his execution. As I note in my post, this does nothing to support the idea that he was a “scientist” or that he was executed for any “scientific ideas”, since he was a mystic who rejected the scientific approaches of his day and the multiple worlds idea he adopted into his mystical cosmology was a metaphysical speculation that had no scientific basis at all in 1600.

But I was intrigued by the emphasis that Martinez placed on the testimony of the young former Lutheran Gaspar Schoppe, who wrote an account of the condemnation of Bruno in a letter dated February 17 1600 – the very day of Bruno’s execution. More importantly, at the time Schoppe was living at the palace of Cardinal Ludovico Madruzzo, who was one of the senior presiding inquisitorial judges in Bruno’s trial. It was in Cardinal Madruzzo’s palace that the condemnation of Bruno was read and his sentence handed down, so Schoppe’s account gives us a unique insight into the vexed and confused historical issue of the precise charges against him.

The problem here is that the sentence that survives assumes all involved already knew the charges and so does not bother to list them, saying only:

“Because you, Fra Giordano, son of the late Giovanni Bruno of Nola in the Kingdom of Naples, professed priest of the order of Saint Dominic, at the age of circa fifty-two years, were denounced to the Holy Office in Venice eight years ago:
That you said that it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh, etc. et infra.
These propositions were presented to you on the eighteenth of January 1599 in the congregation of the lord prelates held in the Holy Office …”

The propositions mentioned here but not listed are now lost and a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to work out exactly what they were. The Wikipedia entry on Bruno gives eight charges listed by Luigi Firpo, stating they were “made against Bruno by the Roman Inquisition”, including a charge regarding “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity”, but fails to mention this list is simply educated speculation by Firpo in his book Il processo di Giordano Bruno (Salerno, 1993). Firpo based his guesses on what we know Bruno had been questioned about by the Inquisition in Venice before he was extradited to Rome, but this cannot be regarded as a list of the Roman Inquisition’s charges in 1599.

As a result of this uncertainty, Martinez turns to other evidence, particularly to the account by Schoppe. He notes that Schoppe lists 12 accusations made against Bruno, which he describes as “horrendous and utter absurdities”. But Martinez notes that:

“The very first one on the list is ‘That Worlds are Innumerable’. Schoppe echoed the precise wording in which it was known as a heresy in Latin: ‘Mundos esse innumerabiles‘”. (Martinez, p. 366)

Personally, I am convinced by the evidence Martinez presents and so have changed from my previous acceptance of the arguments by other scholars, such as Frances Yates, Steven J. Dick and Michael J. Crowe, that the multiplicity of worlds was not part of the charges against Bruno. But I was intrigued by the idea that Schoppe lists charges against Bruno given that the eight claims he was asked to reject in 1599 is now lost. So I went looking for a translation of Schoppe’s account. I found that no such translation of the full document exists, but tracking down a scan of an early printed edition of it, (Macchiavellizatio, Qua Unitorum Animos Dissociare Nitentibus Respondetur, 1621) I had a translation made.

So below is the full text of Schoppe’s account in English translation for what is, I believe, the first time.

Portrait of Gaspar Schoppe by Rubens, 1606

A Letter of Gaspar Scioppius, Concerning the Death of Giordano Bruno.

I have no doubt that the letter I wrote in reply to your recent expostulatory epistle was successfully delivered to you. I’m confident that through it I have adequately justified to you my published response . However this very day I am incited to write this, for Giordano Bruno was publicly burned alive in Campo de’ Fiori before the Theatre of Pompey on the charge of heresy. And I consider that this pertains to the last part of my printed Epistle, in which I treat of the punishment of heretics.

If you were in Rome now, you would hear most of the Italians say that a Lutheran was burned, which would reinforce to a great extent the opinion you entertain of our severity.

But you have to know for once, my R.,1 that our Italians are unable to see the white line2 among the heretics, and never learned to differentiate them: whatever is heretic, they think it must also be Lutheran. I pray to God to keep them in that simplicity, so they may never know in what ways one given heresy can vary from another! For I truly fear that this knowledge of discerning may cost them dearly. Furthermore, so you can hear from me the very Truth, I shall faithfully acquaint you with this matter.

Absolutely no Lutheran or Calvinist, unless he reoffended or publicly induced to sin, was in any way judged in Rome, and by no means sentenced to death. This is the judgement of our Holiest Lord, that every Lutheran may always pass freely and move at will in Rome, and that they may experience all the gentleness and benevolence from the Cardinals and Prelates of our Curia. And yet I wish you were here, R.! I know thus you would discredit all the dishonest rumours that are currently spreading. Last month there was a noble Saxon among us who had dwelled this very year in Beza’s house. He became known to several Catholics and even to the Cardinal Baronio3, Pontiff’s Confessor, who most gently received him, and didn’t discuss with him anything about religion, except for those incidental occasions in which he would encourage his guest in the inquiry of truth. The Cardinal told him to be unworried, for his faith won’t suppose any danger for him, unless he publicly induces to sin through it. And he was going to stay with us for a long time, but was terrified on account of a rumour about some Englishmen being taken to the Inquisitorial Palace. However, those Englishmen were not what Italians would commonly call Lutherans: they were Puritans suspected of impiously scourging the sacrament as it is accustomed by Englishmen. Perhaps in a similar way I would have believed myself this common rumour that this Bruno was burned on account of being Lutheran if I hadn’t attended the Office of the Holy Inquisition when the sentence was pronounced; and this is exactly how I know that he was indeed professing heresy.

That Bruno’s homeland was Nola, in the Kingdom of Naples, where he was professed as a Dominican. He already started doubting the Transubstantiation eighteen years ago (what goes beyond the Reason is, as your Chrysostom affirms, repugnant), and had even denied it. Then he began casting doubts on the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (whom Chrysostom himself calls purer than all the Cherubim and Seraphim) and moved to Geneva, where he stayed for two years. But he didn’t completely approve of Calvinism and was therefore forced to leave and go to Lyon and then to Toulouse, before finally settling in Paris. There he performed as a supplementary professor, for he saw that regular professors were compelled to attend Holy Mass. After that, he went to London and published a small book about “the Triumphant Beast”4, that is to say the Pope, for your people accustom to call him “beast” on account of his honour. Then he repaired to Wittenberg and lectured publicly for two years there, if I’m not mistaken.

Once again forced to leave Wittenberg, he published a small book entitled De inmenso et infinito itemque de innumerabilibus (if I correctly remember the titles, because I had those books with me in Prague), and then another one entitled De umbris et Idaeis5, and in both of them he teaches the most horrible and absurd things; for example: that there’s a countless amount of Worlds; that a soul can indeed migrate from a body to another body and also to another World; that a single soul can form two bodies, that magic is a good thing and it is allowed to practice it; that the Holy Ghost is none other than the soul of the World and this is what Moses meant when he wrote that it hovered over the waters; that the World exists from everlasting; that Moses performed the miracles through magic, in which he had greater skill than the rest of the Egyptians; that Moses fabricated the Laws himself; that the Holy Scriptures are a fable; that the Devil will be saved; that only the Hebrew descend from Adam and Eve and that the rest of the Nations descend from two people that God made the day before; that Christ was not God, but a distinguished magician that mocked people and because of that he wasn’t crucified but rightly hanged; that the Prophets and Apostles were vile magicians and most of them were hanged. Lastly, it would be an endless task to enumerate the entirety of his absurdities, the ones he asserted in his books but also by word of mouth. In summary, he defended everything that has been said by the pagan philosophers or by any ancient or recent heretic.

He moved from Prague to Braunschweig, and then to Helmstedt, where it is said that he professed for some time. Then, he went to Frankfurt in order to publish a book, and finally ended up in Venice, where he fell into the Inquisition’s hands. Some time afterwards he was sent to Rome, where he was repeatedly examined by the Holy Office and convicted by several eminent theologians. He was allowed forty days to deliberate, after which he promised to retract. Then he maintained his trumpery and another forty days were granted to him, but at the end he had no intent but to mock the Pope and the Inquisition.

About two years after being imprisoned he was taken to the Supreme Inquisitorial Palace on February 9 before the Most Illustrious Cardinals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (who exceed all the others in age, legal practice, and knowledge of law and theology), and before the Theological Counsellors, the Secular Magistrate and the City Governor. And being upon his knees, he heard the sentence against him. It occurred thus: first they related his life, his studies and his doctrine; and mentioned the fraternal care with which the Inquisition had endeavoured to reclaim him. Then they described his stubbornness and impiety. Afterwards he was degraded, excommunicated and delivered to the Secular Power; it should be noted that the Magistrates wished him to be treated with all possible clemency and without spilling blood.

After the ceremony, he didn’t reply anymore, but said with a menacing gaze: “Perchance you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. And so he was taken to prison by the Governor’s guard and kept under vigilance in order to see if he would still retract. But it was in vain: today he was led to the stake. As he was already dying, a crucifix was presented to him and he turned his face away to reject it. Thus he miserably burned, and now probably dwells those other Worlds he invented, announcing the manner in which blasphemes and impious are treated by Rome. This is indeed the manner, my R., in which we proceed against these men, or rather against these monsters. I would really like to know whether you approve of this method, or on the contrary you want to permit every person to believe and proclaim anything. For my part I consider that it’s impossible for you not to approve it. You will probably judge that the following should be taken into account: Lutherans neither teach nor believe such things and hence shouldn’t be treated this way. We agree and consequently burn absolutely no Lutheran, but we should perhaps refer to your Luther in different terms. What will you truly say if I claimed and was able to prove that Luther asserted judgements, dogmas and prophecies not like Bruno’s, but even more absurd and horrendous? And I don’t mean them as mere table talk but as the very books he published during his life.

If you are not sufficiently acquainted with the man who brought to light the Truth that lay buried for so many ages, I will direct you to those places where you may find the substance of his fifth Gospel, though you may discover it in “The Anatomy of Luther”, written by Pistorius6.

Now if Luther is just like Bruno, what do you judge should be done with him? He should certainly burn on sterile wood for the limping god7. But what shall be done then to those who regard him as an Evangelist, as a Prophet or even as the third Elijah? This I leave for you to ponder. Just trust me that roman people don’t judge the heretics with the severity they are believed to; and perhaps they should sternly condemn those that only knowingly and willingly perish.

Rome, February 17, 1600″


1. The “R.” to whom this letter was addressed was Schoppe’s friend Konrad Rittershausen, a German jurist and university lecturer and himself a Lutheran.
2. The expression “unable to see the white line” is a scholastic one referring to a clear distinction between categories.
3. “Cardinal Baronio” is Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607).
4. This is a reference to Bruno’s book Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584). The “beast” of the title is actually not a reference to the Pope but to the corruptions and vices that plague society.
5. The actual titles are De umbris idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas, 1582); and De innumerabilibus, immenso, et infigurabili (Of Innumerable Things, Vastness and the Unrepresentable, 1591).
6. “Pistorius” is the German historian Johann Pistorius (1546–1608).
7. The “limping god” is Vulcan and the “sterile wood” reference is to the ancient practice of burning evil or profane things on wood from trees that are barren of fruit.


Martinez notes that it is the “innumerable worlds” claim that begins the list of 12 beliefs which Scoppe lists as Bruno’s heresies. This is true, but there are the earlier references to denying Transubstantiation and the doctrine of the Virgin Mary which precedes the longer list of charges and it should be noted that the Sentence document of February 1600 also begins with a reference to the former heresy and this is the only one of Bruno’s claims that the sentence bothers to specify – ” it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh”. Martinez dismisses the earlier references to Transubstantiation and the Virginity of Mary as ” Schoppe’s narrative account of Bruno’s early transgressions” and regards it as distinct from “the subsequent and separate list of Bruno’s ‘doctrines'” (Martinez, p. 336, n. 132). He goes on to note “that Schoppe specified that Lutherans were not executed for their teachings (such as about transubstantiation) so it is unjustified to construe Bruno’s transgressions, in Schoppe’s narrative, as the doctrines for which he was found to be an impenitent and obstinate heretic, and for which he was executed. Bruno was neither obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation, [or] Mary’s virginity”.

My comment here would be that Schoppe is working very hard to put as much distance as possible between Lutheran doctrines and those of Bruno and to reassure his friend Rittershausen that it is only “monsters” like Bruno who are in danger from the Roman Inquisition, not Lutherans, who he depicts as being treated with tolerance. The fact that the Sentence explicitly mentions denial of Transubstantiation, however, undercuts Martinez’s assurance that “Bruno was [not] obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation. It certainly does seem to be the most prominent of the charges against Bruno, no doubt along with some or all of the other claims that Schoppe lists.

What is clear, however, is that heliocentrism is not mentioned, despite the New Atheist pseudo historical insistence that this was the key issue for the Inquisition. And while the multiplicity of worlds and the eternity of the universe are mentioned, these were metaphysical ideas arrived at by mystical insight. To characterise them as “scientific” ideas is a gross anachronism and a total distortion of history.

21 thoughts on “Giordano Bruno – Gaspar Schoppe’s Account of his Condemnation

  1. I ask only because my English is bad so I may not have understood your translations.
    In Latin I read 'nam libros ipsos Pragae habui' that is 'because I had those
    books IN Prague'. Actually Schoppe lived in Prague and read the books while living there. This is because, while in Rome, he does not remember the titles.

    My second doubt is your translation of 'portenta' with 'foretellings'. I think it is more apt to translate 'portenta' with 'monstrosities' or 'absurdities' as Schoppe would like to continue the list he is doing. It seems to me that with 'foretellings' one can think of a list of prophecies and this is not Schoppe's intention.

    Anyway these are only two small quibbles for a very useful translation.


  2. Does Martinez evaluate how the other charges in this list are related (and seem to spring from) the "other Worlds" charge? Soul migration, disembodyment, magic, the Holy Spirit being the "soul of the World", definitely point to a metaphysical view that is far beyond orthodox teaching. It would be interesting to read some of his "foretellings".

    I would also love to read what doctrines of Luther Schoppe believed to be "even more absurd and horrendous"! Have you read Johann Pistorius?


  3. Good points. It's not actually my translation – I asked someone else to do it since my Latin was definitely not up to the task. He has fluent CLassical Latin, but not much of an understanding of the context of letter, beyond what I was able to give him. Your corrections make sense though, so I think I'll change the text above to reflect them. Thanks.


  4. Martinez was focused on the "multiple worlds" issue and so doesn't go into much discussion of the other claims made in the Schoppe letter. But yes, I agree that several or even most of them are connected to the "multiple worlds" idea. This is why the naive New Atheist anachronism of taking Bruno's mystical "multiple worlds" concept out of the context of the rest of his kooky ideas, conflating it with our scientifically-based conception of "multiple worlds" and declaring it "scientific" and so saying he was "killed for science" is so completely idiotic.

    No, I haven't read Pistorius' Anatomia Lutheri, but he, like Schopp famously abandoned Lutheranism (and, in his case, Calvinsim) and converted to Catholicism. So it makes sense that Schoppe would hold him up as an authority on Luther's "absurd and horrendous" ideas.


  5. "Martinez makes a solid case against the general scholarly consensus that Bruno's multiple worlds cosmology was one of the reasons he was condemned for heresy, and goes so far as to argue it was actually the primary reason for his executuion."

    I think a negative is missing here (and "execution" is misspelled).

    Also, is it just me or doesn't Schoeppe even really say what the accusations against Bruno were? As far as I can tell, he's just describing the content of his books in order to make him appear like a "monster".

    Quibbles aside, of course you're right on the bottom line of Bruno's not being a martyr for science or any such claims.


  6. Edward Grant on the medievals and multiple worlds, in 'Science and Religion' (2004). The condemnations by Catholic churchmen (in University of Paris 1277) PROHIBIT scholars from teaching that God cannot make multiple worlds. This is a very different picture from the New Atheist memes.

    "Although Aristotle had regarded them as impossible and absurd, medieval natural philosophers frequently asked whether God could create the conditions that Aristotle had deemed impossible, as, for example, whether it is possible that other worlds might exist, whether God could make a vacuum, or whether God could make accidents exist that did not inhere in any substance."

    "Condemned articles concerned with limitations on God's power to as he pleases short of a logical contradiction…included the following:
    34. That the first cause [that is, God] could not make several worlds."

    "After 1277, it became mandatory for students and teachers at the University of Paris to concede that by virtue of his absolute power, God could create as many worlds as he pleased beyond ours…

    Most of the discussions about a plurality of worlds focused on simultaneously created worlds, all of which were assumed to operate by the same laws as our own.
    …thus did medieval natural philosophers abandon Aristotle's basic idea that only one center and circumference could exist. They assumed that a multiplicity of equal centers and circumferences could exist simultaneously, one pair for each world…

    Despite a strong sense that, contrary to Aristotle, the existence of a plurality of worlds was an intelligible concept, and that God could make as many other worlds as he pleased, no one believed that God had actually done so, or would ever do so. It was, nevertheless, a momentous departure from Aristotle's concept of the world. What Aristotle had regarded as naturally impossible was viewed in the Middle Ages as supernaturally possible.The existence of other worlds was not an absurdity, as Aristotle had argued, but an intelligible possibility, albeit only by divine command."


  7. According to your own account, the single definite accusation we have against Bruno, was that he opposed specifically, Transubstantiation. Given that, shouldn’t we briefly address that specific subject here?


    1. “Given that, shouldn’t we briefly address that specific subject here?”

      “Address” it how, exactly? That was a purely theological position on a theological matter. So how is it relevant to the issue of whether Bruno was a “scientist” who was persecuted for his “scientific” beliefs?


      1. The theory of Transubstantiation was a compromise between a metaphorical vs. a literal view of the transformation of the host, into the “body of” Christ. In one reading, it allowed the popular brief that the bread literally turned into actual flesh, in the mouth. This was a highly doubtful assertion about a theoretically observable material event. Which in turn, encountered opposition from early pre-scientists. Since it was demonstrably, empirically, false.


      2. Fine, but I still can’t see how that is relevant here. Do you have some statement or writing by Bruno that shows his objection to Transubstantiation was made on some kind of purely scientific basis rather than a metaphysical or theological one?


        1. Documenting that would be a very large but interesting project. This I’d present as an hypothesis for more though investigation. In the meantime though? It seems better supported than the multiple worlds thesis. Which has no historical support whatsoever.

          Everyone admits here that the material available is very sketchy. All we really have is the very bare bones execution order. And then? The very, very highly speculative guess about Bruno and multiple worlds. Which is never mentioned in the most relevant historical document: never explicitly presented as the reason for his execution.

          To be sure, much more research is needed here. My currently proposed hypothesis looks like a months-long investigation or dissertation topic for anyone who is interested.

          I’d start with 1) a full review of all known writing by and 2) on Bruno. As well as 3) other well known predecessors and contemporaries, known to have resisted or debated Transubstantiation.

          There must have been many; the reason the doctrine of Transubstantiation was developed, is almost universally believed to have been clear objections to the physical claims. Which were easily refutable by the simplistic empirical investigation: spitting out the host, and looking at it.


          1. That his beliefs about Transubstantiation were among the charges against him is quite clear, as you say. But there is no way that anyone then (or now) could somehow “prove” that doctrine wrong scientifically. That’s because no-one claimed or claims the host changes physically: the claim is that its physical “accidents” stay the same but that it mystically changes in its “substance” to go from bread to flesh nonetheless.

            This is a purely theological idea and Bruno’s objections to it would have been purely theological as well. So the fact that he denied Transubstantiation does not support the claim that he was a “scientist” or that he was executed for anything to do with science.


  8. According to your own previous accounts, it is somewhat anachronistic to make a firm distinction between scientists and say, theologians, in the Medieval or Renaissance period. Since religion and science were intermixed. So your asking for a purely scientific notion here, is inconsistent.

    Because in the same way it is wrong to look for purely scientific ideas in this era, it would likewise be wrong to look for purely theological notions. And to characterize Trasubstatiation as purely theological. Since if pure science did not exist, neither did pure theology.

    In fact, Medieval and later religious thinkers like Francis and Roger Bacon, and the scholastics, typically combined bits of religion, and science, and reason.

    And specifically? The doctrine of Transubstantiation 1) had been developed as an attempt to deal with, answer, a physical material question: why was it that, in spite of many earlier years of doctrine, the host did not seem to literally change to flesh.

    Then, 2) to answer this, Transubstantiation advocates had advanced the notion that the host might or might not visibly, physically change. But an invisible “Substance” inside it did. However?
    This notion of a “substance” has an obvious debt to the notion of a material “substance.” And in effect, the doctrine did not quite entirely spiritualize dematerialize – or make impermissible – the old common idea of a literal, physical change.


    1. I’m pretty familiar with the nature of natural philosophy in this period and how things we now regard as totally unscientific were mingled with things which could be and were examined scientifically.

      The fact remains that Transubstantiation could not be examined in this way, because it is a purely theological concept. There was (and still is) no way of testing if the “substance” did or didn’t change. So Bruno’s objections had to be purely theological. There was no science involved, as I’ve explained twice now. I’m not sure I have the patience to explain this to you a third time.


      1. But if as you claim, there was no true or pure science, since science was intermixed with theology? Then likewise, likely, there wasn’t a purely theological concept either, even within the theology of Transubstantiation. If science was intermixed with theology? Then, looking at it from the other way around, theology was often interlarded with science.

        And in fact, many iterations of Transubstantiation, in speaking of “substance,” suggested it might be non material. But allowed the old claim of a visible material change as well.

        The theory in other words, actually equivocates between spiritual and physical assertions, on “substance.”

        And to the extent that it allowed a physical reading? Then part of it could be disproved.

        At the same time, a proto scientist might ALSO object to a spiritual side. An immaterial substance. Precisely because it asserted something that, not being physical, could not be physically demonstrated to be true. And which was therefore anathema to science.


        1. “But if as you claim, there was no true or pure science, since science was intermixed with theology?”

          I make and have made no such claim. On the contrary, by Bruno’s time there were people doing genuine science. It’s just that Bruno wasn’t one of them, because he overtly rejected key elements of the scientific method.

          “And in fact, many iterations of Transubstantiation, in speaking of “substance,” suggested it might be non material. But allowed the old claim of a visible material change as well.”

          You’re mightily confused on this topic – the supposed “substance” of anything WAS immaterial. It was only the “accidents” which had materiality.

          The fact you don’t seem to understand the metaphysics around Transubstantiation aside, the idea that someone possibly may have tried to use genuine science to explore Transubstantiation or the question of whether they could have done so is irrelevant here. The simple fact is, Bruno didn’t. His objections to the doctrine were purely theological and metaphysical, not science-based. So unless you can produce a hitherto unknown writing by him that uses actual science to explore the concept, your rather confused thoughts on this subject are completely irrelevant to anything I’ve said above.


  9. So it appears that basically Bruno was put to death for treating with disdain things that Catholics regard as sacred, i.e. for theological reasons. Ideas about multiple worlds, as you’ve noted before, were not unique to him, and were not punished, or even discouraged, so it appears that it was the theological convictions he attached to them, including multiple rebirths, that offended his judges.

    You have probably given the clearest picture available of the death of Giordano Bruno, and as you’ve said multiple times before, he didn’t die as a martyr to science, but as a purveyor of “new age” and anti-Catholic philosophies. The writer states that even a Lutheran or Calvinist would be welcomed and unmolested in Rome, provided they stayed away from religious matters, so Bruno’s error, from a Catholic perspective, was obviously much worse than Protestantism.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *