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God's Jury: The Inquisition and the…

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (2012)

by Cullen Murphy

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A decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, Murphy gives a history of the Inquisition, or rather, the various phases and incarnations of the Inquisition, with an idea of how the records of that process survived the ages. He also focuses on the intense bureaucratic nature of the Inquisition, which produced results that could vary from the bizarre to the slapstick. So far, so good. Where I think Murphy fails is his efforts to relate the Inquisition to the modern world. He makes much of the 2001-2012 period, for things like waterboarding and such, but doesn't note the obvious distinction between the secular powers aiding the Inquisition, and the secular powers outright opposing the inquisition (lower case i) in modern times. This, to me, would seem to be an important differential factor. I found it astonishing that aside from one very brief reference to Lenin, and a later page on the KGB (also brief), Murphy spent no time in discussing the inquisition (again, lower case i) in the USSR. And there, you had a number of remarkable parallels, including attempts to stamp out heresy (think Trotsky) and effects on science a la Galileo (think Lysenko versus those supporting gene theory). No mention of Bulgakov, either, with his phrase "manuscripts do not burn" (though Jacabo Timmerman gets a reference). Coverage of Nazi Germany is slightly better, but not by much, and Murphy doesn't omit to taking swipes -- twice -- at IBM. Obviously, he wants to show off that he's read his Edwin Black. It would seem to me incomprehensible to omit a detailed analysis of the NKVD/KGB and the RHSA/SS, where the secular forces and the inquisitions were one and the same. Rather disappointing book, one that could have been better. (EDIT: by coincidence, I was reading an account of Eisenstein's aborted film "Bezhin Meadow," and the account notes that Ivor Montagu has drawn a parallel between Eisenstein's battle with the censors, and Galileo's battle with the Inquisition, described in the book.) ( )
  EricCostello | Jul 20, 2018 |
God's Jury is an interesting, if rather too thinly detailed, history of the Inquisition, combined with an extensive contextualization of Inquisitorial institutions in history, from the Church to England, Germany, the Soviet Union and right down to the present day US government and Guantanamo Bay. I enjoyed it for its historical presentation of the Inquisition, and for the historical contextualization. Murphy reminds us that there were really three Inquisitions, the Medieval, the Spanish and the Roman, each with its own orrery of horrors. We get some good detail about inquisitorial practices and the social and political historical context of their enactment, and learn a great deal about modern scholarly and theological debates about what the Inquisition really was and meant.

That said, I found this to be a flawed book, in a moral sense. Murphy seems determined to not only describe the Inquisition but to normalize it. By lengthy descriptions of other despotic regimes, ancient and modern, which practiced horrible tortures, relished bureaucratic cataloging of heresy, deviance and political subversion, and obsessed over the private lives of each and every citizen, we are given an impression that the Inquisition's greatest significance is merely perhaps that it was among the first in a long line of modern tortuous bureaucratic pursuers of deviance. This seems, on balance, far too kind, far too understanding. It gets worse as we come to understand that, while the Inquisition no longer exists in name, there exists in the modern day Roman Catholic Church a direct institutional descendant of the Office of the Inquisition, and that in some sense the contemporary Catholic Church and its offices are in a line of direct continuity with the Inquisition. Understanding this, the effort to say "but of course everybody does it" begins to sound suspiciously close to an effort to justify, and not merely to understand.

I don't know what I would do if I were a Catholic, as Murphy seems to be, but I don't think I would be able to live in a relationship to an institution that is unable to separate itself more fundamentally from its evil past, or to feel a part of an institution that is so intimately connected to this history. Germany after all went through a flawed but real de-Nazification, but it is not clear to me that the Catholic church has de-Inquisitioned itself in the same sense.

There is a fine line between historically contextualizing evil, and making peace with it, and I'm not comfortable that Murphy stands on what I consider to be the right side of that line.

In the end Murphy presents a history that is plausible in its details, but misguiding. For someone truly interested in Inquisition history, there must surely be better books (and I'll seek one now, and am grateful for Murphy's reintroduction to this is topic.) As an effort to understand what the Inquisition was, and is, in a deeper historical and theoretical sense, God's Jury is not satisfying to me, nor do I think it would be satisfying to anyone who does not, at a basic level, see the Catholic Church as a fundamentally sound and reasonable institution. This book is ultimately about being Catholic when the Catholic Church has this history. It's a solution to a special problem that Catholics must have, but it is not my problem and may not be your problem either. Non-Catholics have the freedom to see the modern Church for what it is, an organization that is theologically contiguous with the men and institutions who burned Jews and other heretics at the stake, who sought out deviance and discovered it, whether it was there or not, and which has never, really, fully renounced its intolerance for divergent beliefs, but instead merely altered, perforce, its methods and strategies. The modern Catholic Church is the still the very same Church of the Inquisition, and this reality is something that God's Jury does us a favor in acknowledging, even highlighting, but frustratingly seems to avoid confronting or challenging. It is well worth reading, but it may leave you disturbed less for the horrors that it presents than by the author's presentation of the modern Catholic Church, an institution that attributes those horrors not to itself, but merely to its misguided followers. This position, ultimately, is unacceptable to me, and I don't really feel confident that the author finds it as unacceptable as I do.
( )
  hereandthere | Apr 8, 2013 |
Supposedly about the Inquisition and its influence today, this book is peppered with inane references to American pop culture and weak travelogue descriptions, and it manages to be less informative than the Wikipedia entries on the subject. ( )
  jorgearanda | Sep 15, 2012 |
I picked up Cullen Murphy's God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) before bed last night, intending to just read a bit and then set it aside this morning while I turned to the newly-arrived Robert Caro doorstop. That didn't work, and I spent most of the day with Murphy's book instead (I've waited ten years for the Caro, it can wait another day, I decided). Once I started reading this one I knew there was going to be no putting it down.

From the Cathars to Galileo to Graham Greene, Murphy explores the origins, methods, processes and legacies of the Inquisition in all its various incarnations over the centuries, and then uses a series of unnervingly apt comparisons to show how the ideas and techniques first deployed during the Inquisition have gone far beyond theological investigation.

I'm not entirely sure how readers who aren't in agreement with Murphy on such questions as whether waterboarding is torture will respond to this book, but I had no problem with it, and found the section where he compares description of Inquisition-era interrogation techniques with modern manuals fairly remarkable (I suppose they oughtn't have surprised me as much as they did).

Murphy doesn't just argue his case, though; he also does quite a good job of describing the different archival repositories he visited in researching the book, and explores at some depth the records themselves (and the various uses to which they've been put by scholars), which makes for very interesting reading indeed. He is able to inject a certain amount of whimsical digression and witty humor into the subject as well; given the topic, this is most welcome.

Recommended without reservation.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2012/05/book-review-gods-jury.html ( )
  JBD1 | May 12, 2012 |
This is a fascinating book about the history of the various Inquisitions of the Catholic Church - the Medieval (against the Catharsis in France), the Spaish & the Roman - and how these persecutions affected the people in each country where they were pursued, but also how the process developed by the Inquisition has moved into our

The author, of course, has a point to make and a political ax to grind, but the book is written in such an accessible writing style, that it makes for fascinating & somewhat chilling reading. ( )
  etxgardener | Feb 9, 2012 |
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On a hot fall day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St. Peter's Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini's colonnade, and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate, the Porta Cavalleggeri.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618091564, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The acclaimed author of "Are We Rome?" brings his highly praised blend of deep research, colorful travelogue, and insightful political analysis to a new history of the Inquisition. Exploring the Inquisition from its establishment in 1231 onwards, Murphy argues that not only did its offices survive into the twentieth century, its spirit lingers on in the modern world too.… (more)

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