Graeme Wood

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Cullen Murphy’s new book on the Inquisition

Originally appeared in The Daily.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

by Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp.

“Inquisition” is among the least cuddly words in the English language — an odd state of affairs, when you consider that some of its linguistic cousins are perfectly lovely. The ultimate Latin root means simply to ask a question, and its English relative “inquisitive” is something we typically laud children for being. But to be the object of any sort of inquisition, whether headed by a hellbent bureaucrat or a man in a scarlet cassock, is very bad news for you indeed, with a guarantee of psychological discomfort and strong hint of the physical sort as well.

Cullen Murphy’s new book God’s Jury argues that the upper-case Inquisition of the Catholic Church, which began in the 12th century and killed its last heretic in the 19th, shares much with the lower-case inquisitions of bureaucracies and governments today. The Catholic Inquisition amounted to a centuries-long global campaign to ferret out dissident and disloyal Catholics, record their existence and crimes, and punish and suppress them. For its scope and self-certainty, Murphy compares the Inquisition to a “a spiritual Department of Homeland Security” — a characterization that is less flip than it may at first sound.

God’s Jury can be read with profit in two ways. The first is as a digressively engaging re-telling of the principal episodes from the Inquisition’s history, starting with the extermination of Cathar heretics in the Pyrenees. The Cathars, whose Gnostic heresies included rejection of Rome and home-grown traditions of sacrament, fled into the hills and were burned to death. By the early 14th century, they were totally annihilated, in one of the Church’s more successful responses to its dissidents. (“Have you ever met a Cathar?” asks one of Murphy’s Catholic friends.)

With the Inquisition’s persecution machine fully in motion, the next stages of the War on Heresy proceeded apace, with the more familiar Spanish Inquisition (targeting suspected false converts from Islam and Judaism, plus Protestants later on), a global Inquisition in Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and finally the Roman Inquisition, whose famous victim was Galileo. Murphy’s visits to archives and sites of Inquisitive activity — including Santa Fe, New Mexico, where eight Church supporters had their heads lopped off, Saudi-style, in pro- and anti-Church fighting in 1643 — yield no new historical scholarship, but the writing is serious, light, and erudite in appealing proportions.

The second reading of God’s Jury is more controversial.  All the talk of beheadings, mountain redoubts and picayune yet deadly theological differences might lead one to imagine the Inquisition as a particularly appalling relic of a barbarous former world. But instead, Murphy casts it as the founding barbarism of our current one.

There is a reason the Church archives occupy so much of Murphy’s attention: the Inquisition was waged by literate men who carefully planned their strategies and tactics. In the museums of modern atrocities, the meticulous documentation is chilling: triplicate forms filled out for every walking skeleton at Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng, photographs for posterity, strict procedures, followed slavishly. The Inquisition pioneered the systematization of persecution, and the modern state-security apparatuses all inherit their methods through a genealogy of fear that starts with the Catholic Church’s Dominican-led Inquisition.

Murphy intersperses quotes from modern torturers and fanatics with the words of Inquisitors; the comparison would flatter neither of them. Al Qaida statements echo those of Princes of the Church, and torture techniques of modern governments (including the American government) resemble closely those favored by the Inquisitors. Among the more gruesome is strappado, which involved tying the hands behind the back, then lifting the body by the wrists from a rope. Give the rope slack, so the body falls, and then pull it suddenly taut, so the twisted shoulders snap with the full weight of the drop. This torture accounts for the death of the Iraqi Manadel al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib in 2003, and is why John McCain can’t lift his arms above his head.

Murphy is a writer of immense care and restraint. This book is not an inquisition against the Inquisition, a book written to indict and hector the Church into further atonement. Instead it reads as a brief against a much more slippery enemy: bureaucracy. Revelations from historians have led us to a picture of the Inquisition that is “more disturbing than ever,” Murphy writes. “It comes across a bureaucracy like any other, subject to the same myopic imperatives, the same petty ambitions and animosities, that one finds in Dilbert or The Office.”

There is no modern solution to the problem of bureaucracy, save for an embrace of something like anarchism. This is not Murphy’s explicit prescription — he favors modesty over certitude, and a “skeptical view of human nature” compatible with classical conservatism — but it is quite unexpected, even in implication, from a writer so controlled and methodical.

Originally appeared in The Daily.

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