Peter Martyr Vermigli: The Forgotten Reformer

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562)

by Chris Castaldo

This post is adapted from the Foreword of our new publication, On Original Sin: Vol. I of a New Translation of the Loci Communes (1576).

Who is Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1542, pronounced Vayr-MEEL-yee)? Vermigli has sometimes been called the “Italian Calvin” because of the two men’s friendship and theological similarity. If we had been living in Oxford in 1549, however, when Peter Martyr singlehandedly debated three Catholic apologists in the famous Disputation on the Eucharist, we might have been tempted to describe Calvin as the “French Vermigli,” so penetrating were Vermigli’s theological arguments. Despite their many similarities, Vermigli was an original thinker and first-class Reformed theologian in his own right. The following bio-sketch, a companion to our newly released translation of Vermigli’s treatise, On Original Sin, is an introduction for anyone who wishes to familiarize himself with this forgotten giant of Reformed theology.  

In 1514, at age fifteen, Peter Martyr (as he became known) entered the Augustinian order in the town of Fiesole, nearly eight kilometers from his native Florence.[3] After three years, during which Vermigli distinguished himself as a precocious student, he was sent north to the monastery of San Giovanni di Verdara to begin studies at the University of Padua.

The University of Padua

Founded in 1222, the University of Padua reached the apex of prestige in the opening years of the sixteenth century. There, the young Florentine encountered a rich tradition of Aristotle.[4] Without getting buried in hairsplitting partisanship that sometimes afflicted Aristotelian schools, Vermigli imbibed the Philosopher’s logic and methodology. Meanwhile, his monastery provided a firm grounding in the study of Renaissance humanism.

Exceptionally focused, Vermigli supplemented his formal training with a rigorous course of private study—a routine that was aided by his monastery’s exquisite library.[5] After finding numerous errors in the Latin translations of Aristotle, he proceeded to study Greek by night in order to read the sources. The acquisition of this language opened the door for Martyr to engage Renaissance humanism with greater depth and immediacy. Under the tutelage of Professor Pietro Bembo, arguably the most distinguished humanist scholar to be associated with San Giovanni di Verdara, Vermigli acquired an insatiable appetite for the study of classical texts.[6] After eight years in Padua, Martyr underwent priestly ordination and simultaneously received a doctorate in theology (1526).[7]

The seven years following Vermigli’s departure from Padua opened new vocational horizons. He was elected to the office of public preacher, an illustrious position at the time. Martyr traveled through northern Italy lecturing on Scripture and philosophy, and, whenever possible, he studied these subjects with careful attention.[8] In just a few years, while serving in Bologna, Vermigli also taught himself the Hebrew language—no small feat in those days—with the assistance of a certain Jewish doctor named Isaac.[9] So distinguished did Vermigli’s ministry become that his Augustinian order described him as predicatorem eximium (an exceptional preacher).[10] Then, in the spring of 1530, he was appointed vicar of the Augustinian house in Bologna. It was here, according to McNair, that Vermigli’s preaching and teaching ministry led him toward a deeper and more intentional routine of biblical exegesis.

From the Schoolmen he turned to the Fathers, from the Fathers to the Vulgate, and from the Vulgate to the Source itself—the lively Oracles of God in their original expression. At Padua he had learned Greek to read Aristotle; at Bologna he learned Hebrew to read Scripture.[11]

As his name grew famous in the largest Italian cities, Vermigli was promoted to a higher position. By unanimous consent, he was made abbot of his order’s monastery in Spoleto.[12] Effectively navigating the landmines of Spoleto’s volatile politics, he managed to bring moral order out of chaos. Such vision and administrative skill distinguished Vermigli as capable of implementing reform, an ability that in turn earned him a new and larger role as abbot of San Pietro ad Aram in Naples.

San Pietro ad Aram

Josiah Simler, Martyr’s disciple and biographer, identifies Naples as the place where Vermigli’s theological journey demonstrably turned a corner. During the three years of Peter Martyr’s sojourn at San Pietro (1537–1540), according to Simler, “the greater light of God’s truth” began to shine upon him.[13] In McNair’s analysis, this “greater light” was essentially “the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone…. The acceptance of this vital doctrine entailed so drastic a reorientation of heart and mind that it amounted to conversion.”[14]

With this new theological orientation, Vermigli moved north in May of 1541 to become prior of the prestigious monastery of San Frediano in the Republic of Lucca. It was there he initiated a series of educational and ecclesiastical reforms that have been likened to Calvin’s work in Geneva. But after a mere fifteen months of such gospel renewal, Pope Paul III hastened its demise by reinstituting the Roman Inquisition. Recognizing discretion as the better part of valor, Vermigli renounced his vows and made the difficult decision to flee his homeland.


It was Martin Bucer who arranged for Vermigli’s academic appointment to the College of Saint Thomas in Strasbourg. The Italian exile was expected to teach sacred letters, which he proceeded to do from the Old Testament. While in Strasbourg, Vermigli also married a former nun from Metz named Catherine Dammartin, “a lover of true religion,” especially admired for her charity. After eight years of marriage, she died in February 1553, but Peter Martyr would marry again, another Katie, in May 1559.

Following five fruitful years of teaching in the Alsatian city, Vermigli received an invitation in 1547 from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to fortify the newly independent Church of England with Reformed theology as Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford.  Among his many accomplishments in this period, he lectured on Romans, produced various theological treatises, championed Protestantism at the famous Eucharistic Disputation of 1549, and assisted Cranmer in reforming the Church of England by revising the Prayer Book, in the formulation of the Forty-Two Articles (later condensed to the authoritative Thirty-Nine Articles), and by contributing to the Reformation of Ecclesiastical Laws from 1551–1553.

With the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, Vermigli was forced to flee England. Returning to Strasbourg, he was immediately restored to his position at the Senior School. And in addition to teaching and writing theological works, he gathered with Marian exiles in his home to study and pray. Eventually, he accepted Heinrich Bullinger’s offer in 1556 to succeed Conrad Pellican at the Academy of Zurich.

Despite numerous opportunities to lecture throughout Europe, including invitations from Calvin to teach in Geneva and pastor the Italian congregation, Peter Martyr remained in Zurich. The exception was his journey to the Colloquy of Poissy with Theodore Beza in 1561, where he debated Catholic leaders before the French Crown and witnessed to Queen Catherine de’ Medici in their native Italian.

Vermigli died in Zurich on November 12, 1562 in the presence of his wife and friends. According to Simler, who was present along with Heinrich Bullinger and a small group of others: “[Peter Martyr] was silent in deep personal reflection; then he turned to us and stated with a rather clear voice that he acknowledged life and salvation in Christ alone, who had been given by the Father to the human race as its only savior.”  This catch phrase “salvation in Christ alone” aptly summarizes Vermigli’s doctrine, a faith in which he lived and died.

Vermigli’s Loci Communes

Exposure to Vermigli as a theologian often begins with reading his scholia or topoi (treatments of various “topics”), which appear throughout his biblical commentaries and which Robert Masson gathered and published in London as the Loci Communes (“Common Places”) in 1576.[15] The loci method, whichwas experiencing a revival in Martyr’s day, might be likened to a surgical procedure for its relatively narrow scope and meticulous analysis of a subject.[16] More than any other figure, Aristotle (384–322 BC) is credited for having popularized the approach, followed by Cicero (106–43 BC), who had himself first encountered it in the Philosopher’s Topica.[17] The method also drew from the humanist tradition represented by the likes of Lorenzo Valla (1407–57), with its trenchant historical, grammatical, and rhetorical analysis.[18] In Vermigli’s context, the writing of theological loci often amalgamated these dialectical and rhetorical methods.[19] With regard to the former, it was a way to systematically focus argumentation by granting, denying, and admitting proof (concedo, nego, admitto casum). Concerning the latter, it applied the tools of exegesis to texts.

Published some fourteen years after his death, Vermigli’s Loci Communes would become one of the most significant theological works of the later sixteenth century. Joseph McLelland has offered a literary history of the Loci, explaining that it was natural for Peter Martyr’s disciples to gather various scholia together into a theological compendium as a way to elucidate his thought.[20] In time, Vermigli’s Loci Communes would seeover a dozen editions following its initial publication in 1576 and become a central vehicle for spreading Reformed theology throughout Europe and beyond.[21] “The English translation of 1583 held special place,” writes McLelland, “traveling to the New World in good condition. In a recent lecture at Harvard, Diarmaid MacCulloch stated: ‘the works of Peter Martyr were turned into a sort of themed theological textbook, The Commonplaces. If you looked into the library here at Harvard in 1636, I suspect that would be [the] most thumbed book you would find.’”[22]            

In reading Vermigli’s Loci Communes, one might wonder: Was he more of a humanist or scholastic? Peter Martyr’s trenchant work in philology, patristics, exegesis, and rabbinical studies suggest the former, whereas his reliance on four-fold causality (distinguishing between substantia and accidentia, and the quaestio)and use of natural metaphors might suggest the latter. In truth, Vermigli was shaped by both elements of his remarkable background. Born in Florence—capital of the Italian Renaissance—and formed at the University of Padua, a center of Aristotelian philosophy and scholasticism, Peter Martyr employed both traditions in combating theological ignorance.[23]

Some five hundred years later, the shadows of ignorance continue to recede, and Peter Martyr’s Loci Communes continues to speak, imparting illumination to those who will follow the example of Vermigli’s ancient mentor, Augustine: “tolle lege, tolle lege” (“take up and read, take up and read”).

[1] As in his Credo, Vermigli makes this point in his comments on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The Peter Martyr Reader. Edited by John Patrick Donnelly, Frank A. James III, and Joseph C. McLelland. (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 1999), 24–26; 99.

[2] Vermigli et al., The Peter Martyr Reader, 7, 51, 99.

[3] According to Simler’s Oratio, Martyr’s mother had taught him Latin when he was a child. Simler, “Oratio,” in Life, Letters, and Sermons. Translated and edited by John Patrick Donnelly. The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 5, 9–62. (Kirksville: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 11.

[4] For a taxonomy of the various Aristotelian “schools” of the day, see John Patrick Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought 18 (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 13–41, and Philip McNair, Peter Martyr in Italy: An Anatomy of Apostasy. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 86–115. Hereafter PMI.

[5] McNair says, “This library was one of the great formative influences on Martyr’s early years.” PMI, 93.

[6] The “ambience of [Padua’s] devout and learned humanism” is described by Dermot Fenlon, Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy: Cardinal Pole and the Counter Reformation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 26.

[7] Simler, “Oratio,” in Vermigli, Life, Letters, and Sermons, 17.

[8] According to Simler, such study would mostly happen in the houses of his Congregation at Padua, Ravenna, Bologna, and Vercelli. Simler, “Oratio,” in Vermigli, Life, Letters, and Sermons 17.

[9] Simler, “Oratio,” in Vermigli, Life, Letters, and Sermons, 17.

[10] McNair, PMI, 118.

[11] McNair, PMI, 124–25.

[12] Spoleto is roughly 200 kilometers south-east of Florence, a little more than half-way to Rome.

[13] Simler, “Oratio,” Life, Letters, and Sermons, 19. Simler also notes that it was during his three years in Naples that Martyr “fell into a serious and deadly sickness,” although we have no indication whether this experience factored into his conversion (ibid., 22). This disease is thought to have been malaria.

[14] McNair, PMI, 179. Frank James echoes this interpretation, in which he states, “There is little doubt that Simler understood this ‘greater light of God’s truth’ to be the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” “De Iustificatione: The Evolution of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Doctrine of Justification.” PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2000, 1.

[15] Also known as Robert le Maçon, Sieur de la Fontaine, Masson was minister of the French congregation in London. Personally familiar with Peter Martyr’s work in England, he also attended the Poissy conference in 1562. For the structuring of Vermigli’s Loci Communes, Masson used John Calvin’s Institutes as a model, arranging the topics in four books, an understandable decision given the theological solidarity shared by the Italian and French theologians, not to mention the desire to offer a unified presentation of Reformed doctrine. The scope and sequence of the work are familiar: God the Creator; sin and salvation; predestination; calling; union with Christ; resurrection; Holy Spirit; church; sacraments; magistrates and state.  

[16] For an overview of its history and development, see McLelland, “A Literary History of the Loci Communes,” in A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli, edited by W. J. Torrance Kirby, Emidio Campi, and Frank A. James III (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 479–94.

[17] The Topica of Aristotle is part of his Organon, a collection of logical works addressing principles and methods of presenting evidence.

[18] Cesare Vasoli, “Loci Communes and the Rhetorical and Dialetical Traditions.” In Peter Martyr Vermigli and Italian Reform, edited by Joseph C. McLelland. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1980), 20–21.

[19] Paul Oskar Kristeller. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains. (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 92–119. This was the case, for instance, at institutions featuring a mixture of scholastic and humanist curricula, such as the University of Padua where Vermigli received his education, or Heidelberg University, from which Martin Bucer was influenced during his study at the Dominican monastery in Heidelberg. See Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 18–20.

[20] Some of these scholia were relatively brief, no more than a paragraph. Others are lengthy treatises. As early as 1563, the year after Vermigli’s death, Theodore Beza wrote a letter dated July 1, 1563 urging Heinrich Bullinger to consider a systematic theology from Peter Martyr’s writings. McLelland, “A Literary History,” 486.

[21] The English translation of the Loci Communes was produced by Anthony Marten (d. 1597), who used Masson’s version as the foundation. He slightly modified the arrangement of topics and added new material, particularly the large appendix that essentially comprises Book Five. His title was The Common Places of the most famous and renowned Divine Doctor Peter Martyr, divided into four principal parts, with a large addition of many theological and necessary discourses, some never extant before. Translated and partly gathered by Anthony Marten, one of the Sewers of her Majesty’s most Honorable Chamber (London: H. Denham and H. Middleton, 1583).

[22] McLelland, “A Literary History,” 488, citing Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Can the English Think for Themselves? The Roots of the English Reformation’ in Harvard Divinity Bulletin 30/1 (spring 2001), 19. 

[23] Joseph C. McLelland, “Peter Martyr Vermigli: Scholastic or Humanist?” In Peter Martyr Vermigli and Italian Reform, edited by Joseph C. McLelland. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980), 141.