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God's Jury

The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

Cullen Murphy

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NY Times Review

While visiting the Alhambra, Cullen Murphy, editor at large at Vanity Fair, overheard a guide recounting the momentous events of 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella united Spain under a single Roman Catholic monarchy; Columbus journeyed west; and all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled, part of the rulers’ full-bodied embrace of the Inquisition.

“It was a very busy year,” he said to his listeners, who responded with uncertain laughter.

In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” Mr. Murphy functions much like that guide, offering readers a tour of the Inquisition’s nearly 700-year-old edifice. Down to the dungeon to visit gruesome instruments of torture, up to the library to meet the scholars and then a stroll in the garden to survey the surrounding scenery. All the while Mr. Murphy tosses out amusing asides, weighty philosophical observations and contemporary analogies.

His aim is, ultimately, deeply serious. Mr. Murphy wants to demonstrate how the mind-set and machinery of the Inquisition are inescapable products of the modern world that later surfaced in Stalin’s Russia, Argentina’s military junta and 21st-century America, where harsh interrogation tactics and unlimited detention were used at Guantánamo Bay.

His strategy is to combine this grave and grim message with a charming road trip through the Vatican archives at the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio, quaint French villages and Santa Fe’s plazas, a package tour that the publisher describes as both a “colorful travelogue” and “political analysis.”

In less capable hands, this somewhat incongruous combination might register as off-key. Fortunately, Mr. Murphy, the author of “Are We Rome?” and “The Word According to Eve,” is such a witty writer that he pulls it off for the most part, offering a compact and breezy history of the Roman Catholic Church’s bloody crusade with an incisive critique of America’s post-9/11 security apparatus.

What we now refer to as the Inquisition, with a capital “I,” was begun by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 when he appointed “inquisitors of heretical depravity” — usually Dominican friars — to root out those who disputed the Vatican’s authority. They started with the Cathars, members of a Christian sect, who were ruthlessly eradicated from their stronghold near the Pyrenees. The inquisitors then ventured further afield to enforce the pope’s dictates, particularly against conversos, Jewish converts, and secondarily, Christianized Muslims, Protestants and freethinkers.

Persecution is as old as man. What distinguishes inquisitions are communications, bureaucracy and single-mindedness. It is the last feature that gives rise to what Mr. Murphy calls “the inquisitorial impulse.”

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen,” he writes. But to keep it going, one must also have an organized bureaucracy that establishes a set of repressive procedures that are formalized in law and enforced by an institutional power.

Mr. Murphy notes that the Inquisition walked hand in hand with civilization. In earlier times Rome would be largely unaware of deviant views elsewhere. But once a code of canon law and an administrative infrastructure began to take form, “questionable beliefs could be examined against codified standards,” he writes. “Casual remarks could be sorted into pre-existing categories of nonconformity.”

Inquisitors like Bernard Gui (who appears in Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name of the Rose”) and Nicholas Eymerich created manuals that outlined model sermons, methods of interrogation and a range of punishments, from wearing a yellow cross to death.

Gui meticulously recorded his expenses, like the wood, stakes, ropes and manpower required for burning four heretics. But it is the similarities between the medieval prosecutorial strategies — play good cop, bad cop; instill a sense of futility; use rapid-fire questioning — and the United States Army interrogation manual that are chilling.

Mr. Murphy continually jumps between the historic and the contemporary to drive home his points. He notes that 15th-century Spain is where the Inquisition’s power and certitude fully flowered. Ferdinand and Isabella essentially appropriated the Inquisition for their own political ends. They appointed Tomás de Torquemada as grand inquisitor.

“Full of pitiless zeal,” in the words of one historian, Torquemada held the kind of show trials we’ve come to know in the modern world, with secret proceedings, accusers and charges; confessions wrought through torture; and defense lawyers who are denied critical information.

The travelogue continues with the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542.

Mr. Murphy points out how the advent of the printing press revolutionized both the Inquisition and heresy. Print spread ideas faster and farther than anyone could have imagined. Consider that during the entire 14th century, scribes copied some 2.7 million books, a number that printers in 1550 were able to exceed in a single year. Censorship followed in the form of the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, which managed to keep texts like Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1945 novel “The Age of Reason” out of some Catholic hands in the 20th century.

Always on the move, the Inquisition traveled to the New World, Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, wreaking havoc in Europe’s colonies as it did at home.

Enlightenment ideas about reason and liberty began eroding inquisitorial powers in the late 1700s, but the Inquisition did not officially expire until 1870, when soldiers defied the pope, entered Rome and unified Italy.

Boiling down nearly 700 years of history to a digestible portion seems difficult, yet even at 251 pages of text, “God’s Jury” feels padded at times. Many of Mr. Murphy’s visits are primarily to gather local color. For research he relies on the painstaking work of renowned scholars like Henry Kamen, Benzion Netanyahu and Peter Godman.

There are lengthy quotations and entertaining but frequent digressions. Depending on your appetite for quirky detail, you may be delighted or irritated to learn, say, about the papal water pipes’ being encrusted with lime or that the Sumerian archives at Ebla, in what is now Syria, contain 17,000 cuneiform clay fragments.

Mr. Murphy is at his best when he demonstrates the eerie resonance of the Inquisition today. More than cruelty and lust for power, the plodding tedium of bureaucracies, which take on a life of their own, are the engines of inquisitions. With their “myopic imperatives and petty ambitions and animosities,” he notes, they can deliver the wonders of the modern world as well as its horrors. It’s not evil that is banal, but its machinery.

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