Below is the account of the Catholic church’s brutal execution of Giordano Bruno in Rome, Italy, in 1600. I recounted this event at the beginning of my recent podcast with Victor Stenger, in which we discussed the science-religion divide. It’s a good example of the stultifying effect Christianity had on critical thinking, challenges to its authority, and on science in general. This account was taken from James Reston, Jr.’s book titled, Galileo, A Life, published in 1994 by HarperCollins.
“Early in the morning of Saturday, February 19,1600, several hooded members of a group known as the Company of Mercy and Pity (also known as the Company of Saint John the Beheaded) went to the Nona Tower, the secular prison across the Tiber from the holy prison of Castel Sant’Angelo, and there they took charge of a man. Placing him in a simple wagon, they set off to the Campo dei Fiori, the Square of Flowers, down the cramped streets and through the square that had housed Domitian’s stadium.
“During the slow ride over the stones, Jesuit and Dominican priests mumbled their imprecations to the prisoner for a last-minute recantation of his awful beliefs, inviting him to express contrition for his sins, lest he be lost forever in eternal damnation as a heretic. They offered him icons to kiss and presented him with tablets, painted with images of Christ and the Holy Virgin and even the pope, whom the prisoner had called a triumphant beast. But the heretic’s jaw was clamped shut with an iron gag, a long spike piercing his tongue, and another spike stuck in his palate. He would not be able to say to these minions or excite the crowd with the words he had uttered to the greatest intellectual of the Catholic church, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine: ‘I neither ought to recant, nor will I. I have nothing to recant, nor do I know what I should recant.’
“The prisoner had only contempt for his accusers and his judges. When they prepared to deliver their judgment, he leveled his gaze at them and exclaimed, ‘In pronouncing my sentence, your fear is greater than mine in hearing it.’
“Along the way, bystanders asked who the man was. He was ‘a Lutheran,’ the priests answered with the generic slur for any heretic. In fact, he was a Dominican, once a member in high standing of the very order of spiritual police — ‘Dominican’ is translated as ‘dogs of God’ — that had now condemned him. He had been in jail for eight years, an inordinately long time, precisely because the Dominicans had hoped for a recantation and an escape from this final, awful duty. And the culprit had toyed with abjuration, making promises that now seemed like a tactic of delay. They had charged him with error in eight propositions, and upon several he had wavered. About one, however, he stood firm. He believed in the infinity of the cosmos. Just as God was infinite, so was the universe he had created. Moreover, he believed that the earth traveled around the sun, and that in the cosmos there were many earths, which also contained the living creations of God. When they arrived at their terrible destination, the throng quivered with anticipation. The sentence was vague and encoded on a ‘Day of Justice.’ The prisoner should be punished ‘with as great a clemency as possible and without effusion of blood.’ Mumbling appeals, reciting his errors, mouthing prayers about deliverance and charity, the hooded friars guided him to the stake. They stripped him naked and pressed a crucifix toward his face, but he turned away in disgust, sending excited shrieks through the crowd.
“Then Giordano Bruno was burned, bloodlessly, as the priests chanted their litanies.
“ ‘Thus, it is our custom to proceed against such men,’ wrote one well satisfied witness, ‘or against such monsters. In short, I would never end, were I to pass in review all the monstrosities he has advanced, whether in his books or by word of mouth. There is not an error of the pagan philosophers or of our heretics, ancient or modern, that he did not sustain.’ ”