The Inquisition is a word that evokes a time and place when the world was in the grip of religious intolerance, usually of a medieval, Spanish, or Catholic variety. It was a dark time that thankfully we are glad to have left behind. Or have we? In Cullen Murphy’s new book, "God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World", he offers a broad narrative covering the history of the Inquisition, while at the same time emphasizing the development of modern tools that allowed its extensive growth.
These tools included a system of law and administration, reliable communication systems, a bureaucracy of record-keeping and retrieval, the power to interrogate people, along with a source of power to enforce it all. The Inquisition brings to mind religious institutions, but Murphy points out that the political state are as much a part of the game as anyone, and today are the prime inheritor of the Inquisition’s “achievements.” The Inquisition is the harbinger of our modern society, pioneering methods of surveillance, censorship, interrogation, and torture, common practice in secular society, where “the issues posed by the Inquisition enfold the world we call our own.” (24)
“Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform – the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. And in its higher dimensions it was animated not by greed or hope of gain of love of power, though these were never absent, but by the fervent conviction that all must subscribe to some ultimate truth.” (23)
What this “ultimate truth” was seemed to change depending on the time and place. Just as there was not one Inquisition, but many Inquisitions, so too the “ultimate truth” would change, but ultimately seemed centered around the power to control. These many Inquisitions are divided up in the book by chapter, starting with the Medieval, then going through with the Spanish, then Roman, then the global Inquisition where it has been in places as unlikely as Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Portuguese colony of Goa off the coast of India. But Murphy continues with another Inquisition, the secular, covering aspects of Elizabethan England, Communist USSR, the Stasi of East Germany, even the War on Terror and Guantanamo Bay.
This modern inheritance was fascinating and made me think a little harder about the political realities I sometimes don’t fully realize, such as the actually physicality of torture. Techniques developed during the Spanish Inquisition included one particular technique known as the Queen of Torments. Typically the hands of the person to be interrogated were tied behind his back. Then by means of a pulley or a rope thrown over a rafter, the body would be hoisted off the ground by the hands, and then be allowed to drop with a jerk. Joints could be pulled from their sockets. Muscles could be stretched to the point where elasticity would never return. Damage to the brachial plexus, the nerve fibers running from the spinal cord to the arms, could cause paralysis. The weight of the body hanging from the arms contorted the pleural cavity, making breathing difficult (the typical cause of death in crucifixion, for the same reason). (90)
This technique is now common use among the torture of prisoners, from John McCain during Vietnam to Manadel al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib, who died from its implementation.
Another torture development, one I thought only recently invented, is one the imaginative Spanish called the Toca, “the reference being to the fabric that plunged a victim’s upturned mouth, and upon which water was poured,” which one recognizes immediately as a prototype of “waterboarding.” Murphy quotes an expert on the subject, who summarizes “while this is sometimes called ‘an illusion of drowning,’ the reality is that death will follow if the procedure is not stopped in time.” (92) In addition, the water is commonly contaminated with hair, vomit, saliva, mucus, urine, etc…
But let me not give you the impression that Murphy’s book is a long tirade against modern torture. While he provides a fascinating look placing torture in context of then and now, his story is much bigger as he covers a wealth of information in understanding the Inquisition from its beginnings up to the historians today who are engaged in not letting the memory of its importance be forgotten.
And while Murphy emphasizes that secular society inherited many of the Inquisition’s methods, the spirit of the Inquisition has continued within the Vatican establishment up to our own day. The official Vatican institution was called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquistion, which in 1908 was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a sort of uber-correlation department keeping tabs on potential heretics, tracking dangerous books, and making their influence known by putting pressure on organizations to remove people from positions of theological influence. Some of these high target “heretics” include the novelist Graham Green, theologians Charles Curran and Hans Kung, and Jesuit editor Thomas Reese.
“The instruments available to the CDF are not what they once were. It does not torture, except perhaps in a psychological sense. It does not burn books, or their authors. But it can withhold a license to teach as a Catholic theologian. It can bar people from jobs at certain Catholic institutions, and dismiss people from those same jobs. It can apply pressure through the leadership of religious orders. It can also formally ex-communicate, though that is rarely done. The CDF holds the greatest leverage over Catholics in positions of official influence – and in particular, insidiously, over those among them who wish to remain loyal to the Church as an institution. It has no leverage at all over those who simply decide to walk away.” (177)
I’ll let you make your own parallel conclusions to your own religious or non-religious environment.
Even in talking about these two topics above, torture and heretics, it only scratches the surface of what this book covers. Murphy touches on a bit of everything, from the Cathars of France to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, from Torquemada to the Aztecs of Mexico, and yes, even Month Python’s famous skit comes up. He has a witty, encompassing style that brings together a vast amount of information distilled in an entertaining, thoughtful reading of the sources and their importance today. Having only read a little about the Inquisition in my life, the book gives a good sense of where to continue particular areas of interest in the subject. I’m already browsing the library stacks to continue learning about this endlessly fascinating and important history.