Gods Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

ISBN 10: 0547844581 / ISBN 13: 9780547844589
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Synopsis: Established by the Catholic Church in 1231, the Inquisition continued in one form or another for almost seven hundred years. Though associated with the persecution of heretics and Jews - and with burning at the stake - its targets were more numerous and its techniques more ambitious. The Inquisition pioneered surveillance, censorship, and "scientific" interrogation. As time went on, its methods and mindset spread far beyond the Church to become tools of secular persecution. Traveling from freshly opened Vatican archives to the detention camps of Guantanamo to the filing cabinets of the Third Reich, the acclaimed writer Cullen Murphy traces the Inquisition and its legacy, showing that not only did its offices survive into the twentieth century, but in the modern world its spirit is more influential than ever. With the combination of vivid immediacy and learned analysis that characterized his acclaimed Are We Rome? , Murphy puts a human face on a familiar but little-known piece of our past and argues that only by understanding the Inquisition can we hope to explain the making of the present.

Review: Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Cullen Murphy

Q: Why the Inquisition—and why now?

A: This question gets to the very heart of the book. We’ve all heard of the Inquisition—and we all remember the Monty Python line, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"—but we tend to think of it as something safely confined to the past, something "medieval" that in an enlightened age we’ve moved far beyond. But that’s exactly the wrong way to think about the Inquisition. Rather than some throwback, it’s really one of the first “modern” institutions. This attempt by the Catholic Church to deal with its enemies, inside and outside, made use of tools that hadn’t really existed before, tools that have only improved and that are part of our lives today.


Q: Like what?

A: Well, let’s start with what an inquisition is: it’s a disciplinary effort designed to enforce a particular point of view, and it’s built in such a way that it can last for a long time—in this case, for centuries. To last for a long time you need to have some sort of functioning bureaucracy. You need to have trained people—"technocrats," we might call them today—who can run the machinery, and you need to be able to keep training new people. You need to be able to watch and keep track of individuals, know what they think, collect and store information, and then be able to put your hands on the information when you need it—you need what today we’d call search engines. And you need to be able to exert control over ideas you don’t like—in a word, censorship. It’s quite a feat of organization. We take these kinds of capabilities for granted today. With the Inquisition, you can watch them being invented.

Q: Go back to the beginning and fill us in—when did the Inquisition start, and why?

A: Over a period of about seven hundred years, there were many Inquisitions mounted under Church auspices, and they varied in intensity from era to era and place to place. That said, you can divide the Inquisition into three basic phases. The first of them, called the Medieval Inquisition, is usually given a starting date of 1231, when the pope issued certain founding decrees. It was mainly concerned with Christian heretics, especially in southern France, whom the Church saw as a growing threat. Then, in the late fifteenth century, came the Spanish Inquisition. It was run by clerics but effectively controlled by the Spanish crown, not by the pope, and its main targets were Jews and to a lesser extent Muslims. After that, in the mid-sixteenth century, came the Roman Inquisition, which was run from the Vatican, and was mainly concerned with Protestants. This is a very simplified outline. And all kinds of people were caught up in the Inquisition’s machinery—Jews and heretics, yes, but also witches, homosexuals, rationalists, and intellectuals.

Q: How did the Inquisition work?

A: In the early days inquisitors would arrive in a particular locale and ask people to come forward to confess their misdeeds or to point the finger at others. Because there was a "sell by" date—anyone who came forward by a certain time would be treated with lenience—a dynamic of denunciation was set into motion. Interrogation was at the center of the inquisitorial process—hence the Inquisition’s name. The accused was not told the charges against him or the names of the witnesses. The questioning often made use of torture. Detailed records were kept. Most of those who came before tribunals received sentences short of death—for instance, they had to wear a special penitential gown for a year or two. But tens of thousands were burned at the stake for their beliefs. In all, hundreds of thousands of people passed through the tribunal process. The psychological imprint on society would have been profound. And as time went on, the Inquisition in some places became a fixture, with its own buildings and with officials in permanent residence. In some places, the networks of informers were complex and dense.

Q: Burning at the stake frankly doesn’t seem all that contemporary. Why do you say that the Inquisition is essentially "modern"?

A: I’ll start by asking a different question: why was there suddenly an Inquisition when there hadn’t been one before? After all, intolerance, hatred, and suspicion of the "other," often based on religious and ethnic differences, had always been with us. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution—to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life—did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those omnipresent embers of hatred did not exist. Once these capabilities do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well—just look at the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Or, on a far lesser scale, the anti-communist witch hunts. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.

Let’s think about those tools—the ability to put people under surveillance; to compile records and databases, to conduct systematic interrogations, to bend the law to your needs, to lodge your activities in the hands of a self- perpetuating bureaucracy, and to underpin all this with an ideology of moral certainty. The modern world has advanced far beyond the medieval one on all these fronts. Look at what governments can do when it comes to listening in on private conversations, or what corporations can do to distill personal information from the Internet, or what law enforcement can do on a hint of a suspicion.

Q: In the wake of 9/11, torture has certainly made a comeback.

A: Yes, it has, and it has done so for the same reason it always does: when the stakes seem very high, and when the people who want to do the torturing believe fervently that their larger cause has the full weight of morality on its side, then all other considerations are irrelevant. If you’re absolutely certain that your cause is blessed by God or history, and that it’s under mortal threat, then in some minds torture becomes easy to justify. The Inquisition tried to put limits on torture, but the limits were always pushed. Thus, if the rules said you could torture only once, you could get around that obstacle by defining a second session of torture as a "continuance" of the first session.

That’s how it is with torture—once it’s deemed permissible in some special situation, the bounds of permissibility keep being stretched. There’s always some desired piece of information just beyond reach, and there’s always the hope that one more little turn of the screw will secure it. The Bush administration pushed the limits not only in practice but also in theory. In its view, an act wasn’t torture unless it caused organ failure, permanent impairment, or death. Ironically, that’s a far narrower definition than what the Inquisition would have accepted. The Inquisition understood that torture began well short of that threshold—and if it was reached, it had to stop.

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